Illini volleyball unsure of what to expect from Morehead State in first round

When the Illinois volleyball team was announced as the No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament, the Illini immediately knew they could have home-court advantage until the Final Four.

The Illini do not know much about their first-round opponent, Morehead State, though.

“I really haven’t learned much about them these past few days,” sophomore outside hitter Jocelynn Birks said.

The Kentucky-based college plays in the relatively unknown Ohio Valley conference, where it finished 27-7 overall and 15-1 in conference play, its only loss coming to Eastern Kentucky in mid November. Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said he has been watching game film of the Eagles and the team should be able to put a solid game plan up against the Illini.

“They’ve got a big right side that they use a lot, and they use her well, and they use her in a variety of places,” Hambly said. “They have middles that can score, and they get to the middle a lot. They’ve got some physicality and they’re just a good team that runs a sophisticated offense and plays a good defense.”

The right-side hitter Hambly referred to is 6-foot-5 Alex Fitzmorris, who is one of four offensive threats Morehead State is bringing to Huff Hall. Fitzmorris, along with hitters Courtney Smith, Aryn Bohannon and Laura McDermott, all have 285 kills or more and average at least 2.3 kills per set. Fortunately for the Illini, the Eagles aren’t very efficient in their spiking, as the team hits .180, compared to the Illini’s .208 against tougher opposition. Morehead State seems to be defensively stout by the numbers, allowing opponents to hit just .137 on the year.

Senior defensive specialist Courtney Abrahamovich isn’t concerned with the team’s lack of knowledge of Morehead State.

“It kind of goes for every team we play, we don’t totally change everything for every team because we know what we do works,” she said. “We kind of just practice our system and just practice our way of playing volleyball and just trust in that.”

If Illinois is able to advance past the first round, it will have its second-round game at Huff Hall the following day. The lack of time between matches gives all teams involved a tough time in terms of preparation. Hambly is confident in the team’s ability to play one of the two possible second-round teams in Louisville or Marquette.

“We’re scouting all three teams, because we don’t know who we’re going to play in the next round,” Hambly said. “The team doesn’t worry about it until we win.”

Hambly added that his squad is ready for the challenge, as it has spent all year preparing for and playing back-to-back matches.

Despite the Illini looking dead in the water just five weeks prior, Hambly refused to consider the season a success after the team won seven of its last nine to become tournament eligible.

“If you look at meeting expectations of success, we’re not there yet,” he said. “We don’t define our seasons by wins and losses a lot of the time. It’s about whether we met our potential as a group and if we kept our culture intact. That’s how I judge success.

“This team, we’ll see. If we can make a run in the tournament — and we certainly feel like we’re prepared for that — and if we can get closer to our potential then I might feel good about it and feel like we’ve had some success.”

Blake can be reached at [email protected]