Can the Illini make history at Huff?

The No. 2 Penn State Nittany Lions volleyball team has not lost to a Big Ten team in 65 straight matches, a streak that spans over three years.

On Friday, No. 9 Illinois (8-2) will look to break the streak in front of an expected full-capacity crowd of about 4,000 people at Huff Hall when it takes on Penn State (10-1). The 7 p.m. match will also be broadcast by the Big Ten Network online at bigtennetwork.com. The Illini then return Saturday in a match against the Ohio State Buckeyes (12-1).

Penn State entered the year with high expectations of winning a fourth straight national title and keeping the NCAA’s longest ever winning streak intact. Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, it ended at 109 thanks to a defeat at the hands of now No. 1 Stanford.

Even though the streak is over, Illinois will not overlook Penn State.

“In my opinion, (Penn State) is still the team to beat in the country, them and Stanford,” said Illini coach Kevin Hambly. “They have less question marks than anyone else.”

With all of the hype surrounding the match, including the live broadcast and the first expected sellout at Huff Hall since 1992, the Illini are trying not to get caught up. Freshman libero Jennifer Bonilla said the team has held meetings about the match.

“We’re mainly just focusing on ourselves and staying really close and tight together as a team,” she said. “That’s going to help us through the whole thing. We’re focused on this match and that’s what’s going to get us through.”

Hambly said that he is not too worried about how his team will play in front of the thousands of fans at the arena and the many more watching at home. The Illini have already played in front of large crowds in matches against Texas in Austin, Tex., and Nebraska in Lincoln, Neb. He does not think that the television cameras will intimidate them, either.

“We were on TV seven times last year,” Hambly said. “It’s not a big deal to them. They don’t even notice much, I don’t think. It doesn’t change much for them.”

Russ Rose, Penn State’s coach, admitted that the large crowd could impact his freshmen players even though they have played in front of large crowds already this season, including the 6,000 people at Florida.

“I think they’ve played well and played like freshmen at different times,” Rose said. “I’m not expecting them not to be impacted, not just against Illinois but any of the teams on the road, all of the matches are tough.

“We’re on the road the first weekend of the year and we’re going to Illinois and we’re going to have to be ready to play a great team.”

Penn State bolsters one of the best offenses and defenses in the country, thanks to a .326 attacking percentage, while holding opponents to just .052. The team also plays physical at the net and is averaging 3.3 blocks per set.

Sophomore setter Kristin Carpenter has plenty of weapons to go to, including senior All-Big Ten middle hitter Blair Brown and freshman Deja McClendon, who pace the team with 121 and 114 kills, respectively.

But the leader of the team is Broadview, Ill., native Arielle Wilson, who was a first team All-American a year ago. She leads the team with 44 blocks and has 85 kills with a .456 attacking percentage.

“They have two of the best players at their positions at the right side (Brown) and the middle (Wilson),” Hambly said. “I think they’re the two best returning players in the country at their two positions. They both are incredible athletes and every team in the country would like to have them at those two positions.”

But the talent and athleticism of Penn State does not intimidate a focused Illinois squad at all.

“It’s Penn State, but it’s just another team,” Bonilla said. “We have to play them as any other team and just play our best.”

Calming the nerves for the Illini is senior All-American Laura DeBruler, who has missed the last five matches due to illness.

She is expected to see significant playing time, but said she wonders how her conditioning will hold up.

“Usually you play for a little bit and it comes back quickly,” DeBruler said.

DeBruler, who is just 23 kills away from the Illinois career record, said she has missed playing the game and is excited to get back out on the floor.

“I just love playing, so not being around it was really hard,” DeBruler said. “At the same time, I knew it was important for me to get my rest, and by doing that, I would hopefully be able to come back faster.”

What the Illini missed most from her was leadership, which was felt by the entire squad.

“She’s done a great job of leading us so far,” Bonilla said. “Even when she hasn’t been out there with us, her voice is pretty big and it impacts our team a lot.”

DeBruler and the rest of Illinois has gained the respect of Penn State and its coach. Rose picked the Illini to finish first in the Big Ten this season after the departure of two of his top seniors from a year ago.

“I thought (Illinois) had the best roster returning,” Rose said. “And adding Colleen Ward from a very strong Florida team gives them the best lineup returning.”

Saturday’s match features another strong team at Ohio State, who was picked by coaches to finish fourth in the conference at the beginning of the season.

Katie Dull leads the Buckeyes with 157 kills and will be the key offensive player for the team, while Allie Schwarzwalder is sound defensively and averages 1.54 blocks per set.

Rose warned that the Illini cannot forget about the match against the Buckeyes.

“If Illinois puts all their energy on beating Penn State, they’ll have a difficult time the next night with Ohio State because Ohio State is very good,” Rose said.