DeBruler getting back to speed for Illini volleyball

The Illinois volleyball team knew it would have to get solid play from all of its players to defeat conference favorite Penn State on Friday. With senior All-American Laura DeBruler making her much-anticipated return after having mononucleosis, the team had a much better chance.

But the Downers Grove, Ill., native got off to a rough start in the first set against the Nittany Lions by tallying just one kill and three errors. The Illini then stuck with the game plan and tried to keep her involved with the match to get her into a rhythm and back up to speed.

“She’s our go-to, she’s very solid and our rock,” senior setter Hillary Haen said. “We definitely tried to get her involved early so she felt comfortable again.”

As the match progressed, DeBruler continued to adjust to the pace of the game and provided 11 total kills on the night, including three crucial ones in the fifth set.

“I thought her defense was great, and it looked like Laura,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “But her legs weren’t there and she was tired.”

After the match was over, DeBruler and Hambly were unsure if she would be fit to play against the Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday due to fatigue.

“The rallies felt really long, and I hadn’t jumped that much in a long time,” DeBruler said. “Jumping really takes a lot out of you.”

DeBruler did end up starting against the Buckeyes, where she managed eight kills and nine digs.

Haen orchestrates efficient attack

In the two matches over the weekend, the Illini tallied 100 kills, which was in large part thanks to strong setting by Haen.

The Crystal Lake, Ill., native notched 54 assists and helped distribute the ball well to both outside hitters and middle blockers. Four Illinois players had at least 11 kills, with junior Colleen Ward grabbing the most with 16. Sophomore middle blocker Erin Johnson wasn’t far behind that group, grabbing nine kills herself and hitting .471.

“I thought Hillary did a nice job of getting it to the middles and distributing the ball,” Hambly said. “I think she’s been doing a great job all year.”

While her teammates raised their intensity as the match went on, Haen knew she and freshman Jennifer Bonilla had to keep a calm demeanor.

“At a position like mine or Jennifer Bonilla’s, we have to be a little more calm,” Haen said. “We’re not trying to hit the ball as hard as we can. If we start doing that, we start shanking balls or setting balls way outside.”

The next night, Haen set up a strong Illinois attack against Ohio State that had just eight errors and hit a high .364.

“Hillary did a great job of moving the ball around,” DeBruler said. “She got it to pretty much every single hitter at one point. They usually had one blocker and that makes it really easy for us to score.”

She also contributed defensively, picking up 12 digs and assisting on one block in the weekend’s two matches.

Illini move up the ranks

After the perfect 2-0 weekend, the Illini climbed two spots in the coaches rankings to No. 7, jumping a spot over No. 8 California, which remains perfect on the year. Penn State, meanwhile, dropped to No. 4 in the rankings after having its 65-match Big Ten winning streak snapped.

Stanford remains No. 1 and is now a unanimous selection with all 60 voters giving it a first place vote.

The only other Big Ten teams to be ranked in the top 25 are No. 17 Minnesota, No. 19 Michigan and No. 25 Northwestern, a squad that was previously unranked and comes to Champaign next Saturday. In addition to Illinois’ rise in the rankings, Ward received Big Ten Player of the Week honors.

Against Penn State, she notched 16 kills and 10 digs to go along with another solid night of serving.

“Ward did a nice job on defense and a nice job serving,” Hambly said. “It was 14-13 (against Penn State) and she goes back and hits a jump serve. That’s not easy. She went back and went for it.”

The next night, Ward added 14 kills and eight digs, while hitting .444 as the Illini swept the Buckeyes in three sets.