Illini volleyball faces tough matchups on last road trip of season

The Illinois volleyball team is playing as well as just about anyone as of late.

This weekend, the Illini will endure its toughest pair of games in the team’s conference slate, as it will hit the road for its final away games of the regular season to face Ohio State (16-12, 4-12 Big Ten) and No. 2 Penn State (24-2, 15-1 Big Ten). The Illini were able to defeat the Buckeyes in the teams’ first meeting at Huff Hall, but they fell to the Nittany Lions in a close, five-set match in their first meeting.

Illinois will be facing two different styles of play this weekend as Ohio State presents a varied offensive attack, led by outside hitter Kaitlyn Leary. Penn State will be bringing a physical, yet athletic, attacking game, according to head coach Kevin Hambly.

“We’re going on the road, so obviously it’s going to be tough,” freshman middle blocker Maddie Mayers said. “I think we have to bring the fire every time. We have to be ready to play from the get go. If we bring that, I think we’re unstoppable.”

Mayers’ play will be important in the team’s remaining games, as Hambly has began to use her more as an attacker, having her slide over to the edges of the net faster in an attempt to get a quick kill over opposing defenders. Mayers won the conference’s freshman of the week award after she hit .700 in the team’s sweep of Purdue this past Saturday. The Illini’s production on offense has been linked to the play of Alexis Viliunas. The sophomore setter began the season inconsistently, but recently she has played at a high level over a long stretch of matches.

“(Viliunas) takes criticism very well,” junior outside hitter Morganne Criswell said. “She wants her hitters to talk to her. … She’s doing what she can to help everybody, so I think her hard work and how well she takes criticism has helped her connection to everybody.”

The Illini will look to take advantage of a struggling Buckeyes team that has lost 10 of its past 12 matches. Leary will be the team’s biggest threat up front, as she leads the conference in kills with 508 and kills per set, averaging 4.84.

Penn State, on the other hand, has been a nightmare for Illinois historically. The Illini are 9-40 against the Nittany Lions all time and getting their 10th win won’t be easy. Illinois will have to account for hitters Deja McClendon, Ariel Scott, Nia Grant and Katie Slay. The latter two rank second and third in the conference, respectively, in hitting percentage. Both are hitting just over .400.

A win against either of these teams will make the Illini eligible for the NCAA tournament. If Illinois can’t find a win this weekend, it will need one in its final weekend of play, when it hosts Minnesota and Northwestern at Huff Hall. Hambly believes the team will gain a berth with the minimum requirement of a .500 record.

Blake can be reached at [email protected]