Balance, McMahon key to Illini volleyball success against Buckeyes


Illinois’ Liz McMahon spikes the ball against Minnesota at Huff Hall on Oct. 1. McMahon and her fellow seniors will play in their final home game at Huff on Saturday. 

By Nicholas Edward David Fortin

Liz McMahon wanted to be different.

McMahon, an Ohio native and senior opposite side hitter for the Illinois volleyball team, has two older siblings who both attended Ohio State. Her sibling’s choice of school, along with the Illini’s growing national recognition and the atmosphere and coaching staff at the time of her recruitment, influenced her decision to play at Illinois rather than Ohio State or elsewhere.

“I came into this program when it was starting to be something really special, which was cool,” McMahon said. “The culture of it — the coaches, staff — I really liked. I kind of wanted to not follow my brother and sister’s footsteps.”

Since joining the Illini, McMahon has been a prolific scorer and a leader on the team, no matter who the opponent across the net is, but her play seems to be elevated when she plays the Buckeyes.

In seven matches against Ohio State during her career, McMahon has recorded double digit kills in all but one, tallied 103 kills, 22 blocks and averaged 14.71 kills per match.

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The Illini have also been fairly successful against the Buckeyes in the McMahon era. Illinois is currently on a two-game winning streak and is 5-2 against Ohio State in the last three years.

Both McMahon and the No. 15 Illini will get another chance to add to their respective totals Wednesday, as Illinois (11-4, 3-1 Big Ten) will travel to Ohio State (11-5, 2-2) to play its second mid-week match of the season.

It will be a homecoming of sorts for McMahon, she expects her family and friends to be at the game in support. While she said her siblings will be cheering for the Buckeyes, they will also be rooting for her to have success.

“My siblings are my No. 1 fans so it’s Liz vs. the Buckeyes,” McMahon said. “They root for me too.”

In order for Illinois to continue its recent success against Ohio State, it will need to keep everyone involved. While McMahon and junior outside hitter Jocelynn Birks have carried the Illini offensively from time to time, it’s when the team is able to get involved offensively that Illinois has been most dangerous.

We still want to set the middle more,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “With everything else we like how we’re moving the ball around. I think we’re doing a better job than we have.”

The Illini will also need to find a way around the Buckeye’s defense, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten in opponents kills and assists per set. McMahon said attacking Ohio State’s defense starts with trusting the Illini’s defense.

“We’re definitely going to focus on being physical offensively, but every game we pride ourselves on our defense too,” McMahon said. “It’s going to be a defensive battle and we can’t be afraid to get in really long rallies knowing that we can keep defending and digging them.”

On the offensive side of the ball, sophomore setter Allison Palmer said the Illini have been focusing on continuing to improve their setting to put the opposite and outside hitters in positions to score.

“What we’ve really been doing in practice is making sure that we better each ball,” Palmer said. “Just continuing to try to get swings on every single chance is the best way we can beat such a defensive team.”

Illinois will have its hands full with a Buckeyes team Hambly called “very offensive and physical.” McMahon said they are one of the fastest teams in the Big Ten.

“They do a lot of interesting unique combinations, which is a little out of the ordinary for us,” McMahon said. “They’re always a really, really competitive team.”

For the Illini to have success, Palmer said the main keys are offensive balance and excitement, something the team doesn’t need to worry about from Birks or McMahon, who said she gets the most hyped before playing the Buckeyes.

“With Liz and Joce (Jocelynn Birks), they do it themselves,” Palmer said. “They’re that good of players that they’re coming out and swinging and attacking and they’re ready to bring the fight.

“For us, it’s mainly just establishing that everyone is a threat to the other team.”

Nicholas can be reached at and on Twitter @IlliniSportsGuy.