Volleyball looks to shutout pair of Michigan opponents

Illinois volleyball head coach Kevin Hambly believes the Big Ten is strong from top to bottom. He expects his team will be tested with another two tough conference opponents on the weekend.

The No. 6 Illini (12-2, 4-0 Big Ten) put their first-place standing on the line when they travel to play the Michigan State Spartans (9-6, 1-3) on Friday night and the No. 18 Michigan Wolverines on Saturday.

“We’re going to come out and work on things we have to work on and play hard, because we know that the other teams are going to do the exact same things,” freshman libero Jennifer Bonilla said.

Based on past matches with the two teams, senior All-American Laura DeBruler expects a different tempo each night. But as long as the Illini focus on their own style of play, she believes they can be successful.

“Michigan State has had a fast offense and Michigan is the type of team that is relentless and never gives up,” DeBruler said. “If we can pass, we can go to all of our hitters and that makes us really hard to stop just because we have so many options.”

Illinois enters as winners of its last five matches but is struggling offensively, hitting just .170 and .160 in its last two matches, respectively. Michigan State, however, has lost three of its last four, while giving up at least a .313 attacking percentage in each of those losses.

Hambly said the Spartans like to run many different attacking patterns, which can be hard to keep track of. He expects a hard-fought match just like last season’s five-setter in East Lansing, Mich.

“They beat us last year at their place,” he said. “We thought going into this year that they were one of the top six teams in the conference and we still feel that way. They’re incredibly talented.”

Michigan State has solid play from its middle blockers Alexis Mathews and Janilee Rathjee, who each average over a block per set, but is without starting libero Allyson Karaba due to injury.

The next day the Illini travel southeast to Ann Arbor, Mich., to take on the Wolverines, who had a 12-match winning streak snapped last Saturday.

Michigan is a perfect 5-0 at home this season and is well-balanced with a .280 attacking percentage on the season while holding opponents to just .158.

Hambly said people have called Wolverines’ setter Lexi Zimmerman “the best setter in the conference,” and is also keeping an eye on junior outside hitter Alex Hunt.

Zimmerman likes to get the ball to Hunt, who leads the team in kills with 250 and has a good .304 attacking percentage this year.

Hambly also compared Michigan to Northwestern, who the Illini defeated in five sets last week.

“They’re a very good digging team” he said. “They dig a lot of balls and don’t make a lot of errors.”

If the Illini wish to finish the weekend still in first in the conference, they will have to prove they can adjust to their opponents.

“Both of these teams, like every Big Ten weekend, are going to present a lot of challenges for us,” Hambly said. “With both of those styles, it will be a tough change from one night to the next.”