Illini complete clean sweep in Stuff Huff match

By Eli Schwadron

The Illinois volleyball team (1-0) started slow in its season opener against Louisville (0-1) on Friday night. But as the match wore on, the No. 8 Illini gained momentum offensively and edged the Cardinals 27-25, 25-23 and 26-24 for a clean sweep in front of a crowd of 3,344 at Huff Hall. Head coach Kevin Hambly employed 11 different players throughout the evening.

Preseason All-Big Ten selection Jocelynn Birks, who led the conference in kills, points and double-doubles from the outside hitter position last season, struggled to find her rhythm last night, finishing with 11 kills and 9 errors on 41 total attempts for a .049 hitting percentage. Fortunately for the Illini, several other players stepped up and carried the load.

Freshman setter Jordyn Poulter, part of Illinois’ top-ranked recruiting class, was sensational in her first collegiate outing. She posted 35 assists and connected with junior outside hitter Michelle Strizak early and often. Strizak delivered an efficient 13 kills on 28 total attempts and just 1 error, good for a .429 hitting percentage.

Louisville jumped out to a 9-4 lead in the first set, but the Illini battled back and escaped with a two-point victory. Hambly’s squad carried that momentum into the second set, as Illinois raced out to a 3-0 advantage. Poulter spread the ball around, which kept Louisville’s blockers on edge and opened up seams for Illinois’ hitters. The freshman said everyone has been hitting well in practice, and as a result, the trust to set for anyone at anytime existed.

But after a strong start in the second set, Illinois began to feel the heat a bit. The Illini led 21-14 but quickly lost ground as Louisville rattled off six straight points to close the gap at 21-20. Hambly called timeout, and the team regrouped, refocused and got the job done. 

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“We need to continue to keep our eye on the current moment and not get ahead of ourselves,” Poulter said. 

Poulter and junior middle blocker Katie Stadick each earned blocks to finish off the second set, 25-23. The Illini then took care of business in the third and final set. With the game knotted at 23 apiece, Illinois displayed its mental toughness by putting the nail in the coffin.

Cardinals senior outside hitter Erin Fairs posed problems for the Illini, as she put up 13 kills and 9 digs. However, once Illinois began to hone in on her and garner some blocks, it affected Fairs’ approach. “You could see she was trying to do a little too much,” Hambly said. “She was afraid of the block, which is what happens to all outside (hitters). Our kids do the same thing. They try to avoid the block instead of being smart about how to attack it.”

Illini fans who stuffed Huff on Friday may have noticed a familiar face on the Louisville coaching staff. Cardinals head coach Anne Kordes was Illinois’ top assistant coach under Don Hardin from 1999-2003. She helped lead the Illini to a 90-61 record, including three NCAA tournament appearances.

Moving forward, Hambly wants the team to avoid playing frantically and instead try to rely more on the system. The Illini played impatiently in their season opener and hit 14 balls out of bounds; they’ll need to calm down by the time they reach Big Ten play. 

But the fact that Illinois still managed a clean sweep despite not playing its best volleyball is definitely a good sign for the team. The program is now 32-10 all-time in season-opening matches and hold a 10-4 record against Louisville in all-time matchups.

The Illini play twice Saturday: 10 a.m. vs. Miami (Ohio) and Creighton at 7 p.m.

The team’s secret to bouncing back after a grueling match the night before? 

“Chocolate milk and sleep,” Strizak said.

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