Illini volleyball looking to reverse outcome in 2nd match against Wolverines

There’s only been one blemish on the No. 6 Illinois volleyball team’s record in the conference season: a loss to No. 15 Michigan.

In that match, held in Ann Arbor, Mich., the Illini (17-3, 9-1 Big Ten) were unable to stop the Wolverines’ offense in their home gym in a four-set defeat.

Illinois hopes playing in front of a Huff Hall crowd at home will help it pick up a win Friday against Michigan (19-3, 8-2), which would extend the Illini’s lead in the Big Ten standings. The Orange and Blue then return Saturday night to take on another challenging team, the Michigan State Spartans (11-10, 3-7), who they topped in a five-set match Oct. 8.

“We’re just really excited to play them again,” junior outside hitter Colleen Ward said. “It was obviously an exciting weekend the first time we played them, so we’re just really getting prepared this week in practice because we know it’s going to be a tough weekend.”

Michigan relies heavily on its two biggest offensive weapons, senior setter Lexi Zimmerman and junior outside hitter Alex Hunt.

Zimmerman likes to play more aggressively than most setters in the conference as she likes to dump the ball more against opposing defenses. She had 13 kills on 24 swings in the previous match, but still had 43 assists and set up her teammates. The squad had a .257 attacking percentage in the match.

Head coach Kevin Hambly said freshman libero Jennifer Bonilla had “never seen anything like Lexi” and was caught off guard against such an aggressive setter. He also said over the course of the match she started to figure Zimmerman out, but by that point it was too late.

Since then, Hambly has seen Bonilla improve and is confident the Reseda, Calif., native can be more successful this time.

“She’s starting to play in control and not just athletic,” Hambly said. “I have more faith in her the second half (of the season) and I had a lot of faith in her the first half.”

Hunt, meanwhile, had 19 kills on 58 attacking attempts, which were 33 more than the next highest on the team.

“If she gets hot, she’s tough because she can bring it from the front row or back row,” Hambly said. “I’m worried about her attack as well as I’m worried about her serve because her serve can get going and she can score some points with that.”

Ward said the team must seize the momentum early and sustain it over the course of the match to put itself in a position to win.

“We want to just come out strong immediately in the first game and then continue throughout the whole match,” Ward said. “That’s one of our objectives for the week: to stay consistent the whole match.”

Saturday’s match doesn’t promise to be any easier. Despite sitting at ninth in the conference and losing three of its last four, Michigan State played well against Illinois in the teams’ previous meeting.

After the five-set victory by the Illini, Hambly said his team probably shouldn’t have won the match.

Both teams struggled on the attack, with each tallying 29 attacking errors in the first match. The difference came down to serving; the Illini had six aces and four errors, while the Spartans had just three aces and 11 errors.

In both of the previous matches, Hambly said his team didn’t have the intensity it needed before, but expects that to be different this weekend.

“I think it’s going to be easier having lost to Michigan and also feeling like we hadn’t played very well against Michigan State to bring that kind of energy,” Hambly said.