Illini Volleyball prepared for high-pressure opener versus Penn State

Friday night marks a turning point for the No. 9 Illinois volleyball team. It’s the night with the most hype of the season. It’s the first match that two-time All-American Laura DeBruler will play in two weeks. It’s against No. 2 Penn State, and it’s the first match of Big Ten competition.

“I think we really developed our mentality of what we need to bring into Big Ten season,” junior Michelle Bartsch said. “We got things figured out; it’s usually pretty rough with new players and new systems.”

One-third of the regular season is over for the Illini, and as head coach Kevin Hambly said, its been an interesting road.

Freshman Anna Dorn was sidelined for the entire season after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament. DeBruler had a case of mono. Bartsch was sidelined for half a match due to an ankle injury.

“I think we learned we’re tough and we can deal with adversity and we’re not afraid to get into a fight,” Hambly said.

Hambly said the team was tested, that they had to go to their bench and try some things they had never done before. The team had to face situations it was not expecting.

And the players are finally finding their momentum and figuring out exactly how everybody fits in the equation. Bartsch said, with a team that has a mix of veteran leaders and young blood, it takes a little bit to figure everything out.

“With me and DeBruler and Ward as a system, it’s really good how it works for our system,” Bartsch said. “It’s really good to have three hitters who can put the ball in hard every time.”

It took freshman Jennifer Bonilla a little bit of time to get used to playing college volleyball, with its faster pace and higher level of competition.

“The biggest thing we learned is every team’s gonna be good, every team’s gonna work hard and every team’s gonna want to beat us,” Bonilla said.

Illinois played one of the toughest nonconference schedules it’s ever had — facing national powerhouses No. 4 Nebraska and No. 12 Texas.

Hambly believes the team’s first loss against Nebraska was understandable but felt differently about the loss against No. 25 Cincinnati.

“I think we thought we were too good or something,” Hambly said. “If we want to be one of the elite programs in the country, we can’t play like that.”

One of the things Illinois had to work on was developing its sense of style and sticking with it, no matter what the competition is like and what the energy level is.

The Illini had to face a different type of pressure this year, entering the season ranked No. 6 — one of their highest rankings. Because the team is so highly regarded, it had to face more intense crowds at away competitions. At the Nebraska match, there were just under 12,000 people in attendance. And now for the Big Ten opener, the Illini jump straight into high-intensity pressure and a large crowd against Penn State, which is being advertised as an event, “History at Huff.”

“It’s exactly how you ride it out, just play the toughest team in the conference right away,” Hambly said.