Illinois volleyball gets help from ‘7th person’ on court

During Saturday’s Illinois football game, the “No. 1 Illinois volleyball”: team (15-0, 4-0 Big Ten) stepped onto the field to encourage fans to attend that night’s “Purdue match”:

It must have worked, as the second-largest crowd in school history filled Huff Hall to watch Illinois defeat then-No. 12 Purdue (14-1, 3-1), 3-1, and become the only undefeated team in the country.

But walking on that football field proved to senior Colleen Ward that fans were already aware of their success so far this season.

“It was just awesome to have that many people show their support for us,” Ward said. “I mean even when we were walking out there, they were all standing up as we were walking like along the line, so it was just, really cool.”

Junior Annie Luhrsen credited those 4,261 fans who showed up for Saturday night’s match for creating a fun environment.

“I mean it’s just exciting, it’s almost having a seventh person out on the court. I mean it gives us an advantage in so many ways,” Luhrsen said. “It’s just a positive atmosphere that it’s comfortable, we’re not like being mean to the other players — because I know a lot of other places can be that — it’s just supportive of volleyball and the sport we play.”

The fan support lasted the entire weekend. On Friday night, the Illini defeated Indiana, 3-1, in front of an announced crowd of 3,108 that senior Michelle Bartsch said aided the Illini through a tough match.

“The student section was insane, like their energy helps us a lot,” Bartsch said after the Indiana match. “Especially we weren’t playing well throughout that match and I think they really helped us regain our energy throughout the whole game.”

*Illinois more relaxed vs. Purdue*

Throughout the Indiana match, setter Luhrsen just didn’t seem like herself, tallying three attacking errors, three serving errors and only 36 assists.

Things changed Saturday, though, as Luhrsen took control of the game, recording her fifth-most assists in four sets with 44.

“I think Annie was more of herself (Saturday), she was more creative and I thought she made some spectacular plays and she did some things that she is going to sort out, too,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “She’s been moving in a good direction. It’s a hard role to play. And with this her first year doing it, with this group and with this much pressure, I think she’s learning how to manage it a little bit better.”

Hambly said the team seemed more relaxed in the Purdue match than the Indiana match by not over-thinking.

“I thought they handled their emotions a lot better. I thought we played more patient than we did (Friday night),” Hambly said. “We weren’t trying to be something were not. We played more like Illinois.”

*Illinois remains No. 1*

The Illinois volleyball team earned the No. 1 spot for the second straight week, gaining all but four votes for the top spot.

No teams dropped out of the rankings this week, while the top five teams remained the same as last week.

The Big Ten ranks as follows: No. 6 Nebraska, No. 8 Penn State, No. 11 Purdue, No. 14 Minnesota, No. 18 Michigan and No. 25 Ohio State.