Illini faces top non-conference competition at Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge

Illinois+Jocelynn+Birks+%287%29+spikes+the+ball+during+the+game+versus+Louisville+at+Huff+Hall+on+Friday%2C+August+28%2C+2015.The+Illini+won+3-0.

Illinois’ Jocelynn Birks (7) spikes the ball during the game versus Louisville at Huff Hall on Friday, August 28, 2015.The Illini won 3-0.

By Daniel Dexter

Three weeks before conference play, the Illinois volleyball team (4-1) has already played two top-25 teams: No. 3 Stanford (3-1) and No. 23 Colorado (2-3).

As a part of the Big Ten/Pac-12 challenge, the Illini traveled to University Park, Pa., to participate in the tournament alongside Big Ten rival No. 1 Penn State (5-0). For middle blocker Katie Stadick, the tournament was an opportunity to test the team and get a taste of a possible NCAA tournament opponents.

“Once Big Ten play starts, you don’t really get to play any other schools,” Stadick said. “It’s a great opportunity because the Pac-12 is another tough conference. We could end up playing Stanford at the end of the year, and it’s a great environment and opportunity.”

While Illinois went 1-1 on the weekend, the Nittany Lions manhandled Stanford and Colorado and are yet to drop a set this season. Illinois will get its chance to take down the nation’s top ranked team on Oct. 9 in Huff Hall.

Team continues to build rapport with Poulter

Freshman setter Jordyn Poulter continues to stand out — she recorded 52 and 30 assists against Stanford and Colorado, respectively.

Stadick said her connection with Poulter is developing. She felt comfortable with the setter’s passes throughout the weekend, especially against Stanford. Against the Cardinal, Poulter assisted on 88 percent of the Illini’s kills.

Outside hitter Jocelynn Birks added that Poulter has a composed demeanor on the court, and the connection between them will improve over time.

“We are obviously still figuring it out,” Birks said. “It has only been a couple of weeks. She also is able to stay calm on the court, which helps everybody else stay calm.”

Birks led team on offense

Birks made her presence felt on the offensive end, leading the team in kills in both weekend matchups. She contributed 16 and 15 kills against Stanford and Colorado, respectively.

Head coach Kevin Hambly was impressed with her play over the weekend, calling her play against Stanford some of the best he has seen from her. He also commended her leadership off the court for keeping teammates accountable on their work ethics.

Despite the solid weekend, Birks was still critical of areas of where she and the team need to work on, particularly in closing out close matches.

“I think that especially when we get up on a team, we need to hold on to the lead and not relax,” Birks said. “We have to continue to push rather than letting them back in it, which is what happened in a couple of the sets.”

[email protected]