Volleyball preps for Big Ten

Illinois volleyball sophomore Jennifer Beltran is well aware of the difference between the nonconference season and Big Ten play.

“Preconference is to figure stuff out,” Beltran said. “But for Big Ten, it’s just game on, like it’s time to go.”

From this week until NCAAs, the Illini will face only Big Ten opponents. They aren’t entering conference season unprepared, however, as many matches throughout the No. 3 Illini’s 11-0 start were highly contested.

Through nonconference play, Illinois faced three five-set matches and some tough road crowds. Matches against Dayton and Tulsa, in which the Illini trailed 0-2, showed senior Rachel Feldman what the team is about.

“I think we’ve learned we can pull off five-set matches,” she said. “It’s not what we wanted necessarily in the preconference, but it was nice to see after being down two sets we did have the will and the heart to come back and perform.”

Head coach Kevin Hambly said the nonconference was about refining small details. Beltran has also seen those refinements translate from practices to competitions.

“I mean, preconference was a time for us to put everything we’ve been working on in the gym, out on the court,” Beltran said. “We’ve been working through a lot of things: just team chemistry, getting connections with the setters and hitters and getting our system to work and getting the freshmen used to it.”

This season has given the Illini their best record since 1985. However, that record includes just one win over a ranked opponent, then-No. 21 Dayton, unlike last year — where they faced Nos. 2, 7 and 20 during the nonconference portion. Despite this, Hambly is not worried.

“We saw all the things we needed to see as far as systems and stuff we needed to get prepared for. I feel good about what our nonconference schedule was like,” Hambly said. “Would it have been nice to play like a national power like a UCLA? Maybe, but going into this I still feel like this was the right group (of opponents) to play.”

Feldman felt challenged by the nonconference play, though more from a mental standpoint than physical.

“Especially when we had to play two matches in one day,” Feldman said. “That definitely put a strain on us and the playing the competitive teams we played, two in one day.”

The Illini ended their nonconference season at a high point. Hambly said all the Illini’s Friday matches resulted in good performances by his team. Feldman and Beltran agreed, saying the 3-0 win over Cincinnati that only lasted about one hour, 20 minutes, was the team’s best match so far.

“It was amazing how focused our team was, that match, I mean we went out there on a mission and we did everything we said we were going to do,” Beltran said. “So, it was great to see, so we’re just hoping to replicate that.”