Volleyball vies for record start against former coach

The past will meet the present this weekend for the No. 6 Illinois volleyball team when it travels for a pair of Big Ten matchups.

On Friday night, the Illini (15-3, 7-1 Big Ten) take on the No. 20 Minnesota Golden Gophers, who are coached by former Illini head coach Mike Hebert. The next night, the team travels south from Minnesota to Iowa City, Iowa, to take on the Hawkeyes.

Illinois expects a pair of tough matches, but if it wins both over the weekend, it will be the Illini’s best start in the conference since 1992, when Hebert was the head coach.

Illini head coach Kevin Hambly expects the match to be a grind against Minnesota (14-6, 4-4), which has a similar style of play to Illinois. He said Minnesota is a defense-oriented team with a solid block and called the Gophers “one of the more physical teams in the conference.”

“We’ve had some really knockdown, dragout matches,” Hambly said.

“Even the three-set matches we’ve had were all tight sets.”

The Golden Gophers enter Friday’s match as losers of their last three but have lost just one match at home. Illini senior setter Hillary Haen knows how hard it can be to play in the Sports Pavilion.

“They really are a team that doesn’t give you a lot of easy points, so you have to go up playing your ‘A’ game,” Haen said.

“On top of that, the crowd is on top of you the whole time, too.”

While Minnesota is a sound defensive team that averages 2.76 blocks per set, it has also been strong offensively, with a .277 attacking percentage on the year.

Sophomore outside hitter Tabitha Love leads the team with 3.76 kills per set and is complemented offensively by freshman outside hitter Ashley Wittman, who averages 3.51 kills per set.

Defensively, the Gophers rely on Jessica Granquist at the libero position, where she is averaging 5.14 digs per set, and junior middle blocker Ariana Filho, who leads the team with 59 blocks on the year.

The match will be broadcast live online at ESPN3.com and replayed Sunday on ESPN2 at noon.

Saturday’s match against Iowa (6-10, 1-6) should be more manageable. The Hawkeyes have won just one of their past 11 matches and are tied for last in the conference.

Hambly said Iowa is starting four freshmen this season, compared to Illinois, which has a more experienced roster led by seniors Haen, Johannah Bangert and Nicole Kump.

Offensively, Iowa has been unable to find a rhythm and is led by junior middle blocker Mallory Husz, who has just 2.46 kills per set and a .247 attacking percentage.

The Hawkeyes also struggled on the defensive end, averaging just 2.03 blocks per set, while allowing opponents to attack with a .196 percentage.

Still, the Illini know they can’t take either match lightly and must match the high intensity that helped them win two matches last weekend.

“We want to maintain the same energy level and excitement that we had last weekend,” Kump said.