Illini must execute against Michigan

“Execution” has been the most important word associated with head coach Kevin Hambly and the Illinois volleyball team.

While it’s the team’s lack of execution that has established the season’s motif, Illinois (10-12, 6-6 conference) can look back to its first match against No. 17 Michigan (15-8, 5-7 confernce) this year as a textbook display of executing correctly.

After winning the first set of the match against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Oct. 5, the Illini volleyball team found itself in a precarious situation just two sets later: down two sets to one and on the brink of falling to 5-8 on the season.

Then, Illinois did something it hasn’t done much of through the year. It came back to win.

After a week where Illinois was on both ends of a sweep, the team is looking to execute again against the reigning Final Four squad and finally get its record back to .500 for the first time since the middle of September. The Illini return to Huff Hall for the first time in two weeks to face a Wolverines squad that has dropped the past three matches against Illinois and two of their last three overall.

“They’re essentially the same team that played in the Final Four last year,” Hambly said. “They’re a challenge you know, and they play us pretty well. They play pretty good defense, and they run a really complicated, fast offense.”

Fortunately for the Illini, defense has been the team’s key component on the floor of late. Despite failing to reach a .200 hitting percentage or above in three of its last four matches, Illinois has accumulated 35 total team blocks and 260 digs in 15 sets en route to a 2-2 record. Michigan ranks third in kills in the conference with 13.6 per set but does not have a single outside hitter generating a majority of its offense. Four Wolverines account for the team’s offensive production, three of whom have more than 200 kills and one with 184. Illinois is coming off a match where it held Iowa to a -.048 hitting percentage, leading to a 3-0 sweep in the Illini’s favor.

The last time Illinois and Michigan matched up, the Illini got production from just about everywhere as sophomore outside hitter Jocelynn Birks and junior Morganne Criswell accounted for 29 kills, sophomore setter Alexis Viliunas racked up 40 assists, and junior middle blocker Anna Dorn blocked seven balls. The Illini will need to put together another complete effort in order to upset the Wolverines for the second time this year.

Blake can be reached at [email protected]