Illinois, Nebraska volleyball battle for top spot in Big Ten

Senior Michelle Bartsch remembers the last time her Illinois volleyball squad played Nebraska.

Last season, the Illini cruised through the first two sets. Then midway through the third, Bartsch jumped for a swing at the net. When she came down, she rolled her ankle on an opposing player’s foot and sat out to watch Nebraska come back from an 0-2 deficit to win the match.

This weekend, Bartsch and her No. 1 Illinois squad return to that same court to take down No. 4 Nebraska. This time, however, the game will count toward the conference standings.

Saturday’s match marks the first Big Ten battle against Illinois for Nebraska, which boasts an atmosphere unique in the conference.

“Nebraska’s environment is different than any environment in the Big Ten,” said Bartsch, who played USA Volleyball with many of Nebraska’s players. “It’s just a whole different feel. It’s always crowded. It’s always packed. It’s always crazy there.”

“I would like to play them here (at Huff Hall),” Bartsch added. “I think it would be good for them to experience Huff. I think we do have one of the best environments in the Big Ten.”

Illinois (20-0, 9-0) and Nebraska (16-1, 9-0) have only met twice since 1994.

Nebraska’s addition to the conference makes Saturday’s matchup even more anticipated because the two are the only teams undefeated in the Big Ten.

Redshirt freshman Anna Dorn said the feeling leading up to this weekend is similar to when the Illini traveled earlier in the season to play Penn State, “winning in five sets”:

“It kind of reminds me of when we were going into Penn State, and they were after us,” said Dorn, who had “a breakthrough match”: that night with 13 blocks. “We see it as more of an opportunity. We don’t get too scared. We just go in and do the best we can. We’re going to play our volleyball, and whatever happens, happens.”

As with the rest of the season, the Illini enter Saturday’s match with a defensive mindset.

The Cornhuskers return six key players from their roster last season, when they won the Big 12 and went 29-3 overall. One of their biggest threats will be First-Team All-American outside hitter Hannah Werth.

Meanwhile, the Illini are returning a cast led by the arms of Bartsch and senior Colleen Ward, who posted 20 kills and 20 digs in just three sets in “Wednesday’s win over Northwestern”:

With the veterans and three new starters in the lineup, junior setter Annie Luhrsen believes the Illini matchup well with the Cornhuskers.

After Saturday, the Illini still have another half of the conference season to go and are still a ways away from the NCAA Tournament in December.

“A lot of the Big Ten teams, especially them, what we focus on is growing and peaking in the end,” Luhrsen said. “They’re doing a really good job at that, too, improving as the season goes on. I think that’s going to be a challenge, cause when another team is getting better, that means you have to be getting just as much better.”