No. 13 Illinois volleyball returns to Huff Hall after five weeks on road

Kevin Vongnaphone The Daily Illini Huff Hall

By Eli Schwadron

Five weeks on the road can take its toll.

The No. 13 Illinois volleyball team (11-4)ss has strictly played away matches since the Big Ten/Pac 12 Challenge in University Park, Pennsylvania on Sept. 4-5.

At the start of the season, head coach Kevin Hamblyss was adamant that the amount of travel makes no difference. But after finishing the road trip with losses against No. 16 Wisconsin and No. 11 Minnesota,ss the seven-year head coach said the lack of additional practice time cost the Illini.

“I just saw things slipping away in the way we were performing, the way we were executing our systems and our skills,” Hambly said. “That happens when we’re not training … But we couldn’t train. We would’ve buried (our team).”

Though Hambly noted that additional training could’ve helped to prevent the 3-1 and 3-2 losses to the Badgers and Golden Gophers, he thought his team managed the fatigue well. He said the Illini were fine physically, but skill-wise, the group began to unravel in its fifth week on the road and second week of Big Ten action.

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Despite losing their third and fourth matches, a positive takeaway from the weekend was the play of fifth-year outside hitter Jocelynn Birks. The week prior, Birks was sidelined in consecutive sweeps against Maryland and Rutgers due to back spasms. Trainers worked on Birks’ back all week between the matches against Rutgers and Wisconsin. She said her back is feeling great; the time off helped, and everything has been “pretty calm” since the Wisconsin game.

Like Hambly, Birks said such little practice time hurt the Illini against Wisconsin and Minnesota.

“We hadn’t touched a ball, we hadn’t had a practice,” Birks said. “A lot of our last memories in our minds were still on what was happening in that Wisconsin game on Friday, so I think this whole week of practice to train and do what we need to do can only help.”

Apart from the additional training, Birks said the team is glad to be back in Champaign for other reasons.

“One, just that we get to play in Huff this weekend,” Birks said. “And school has been a huge stressor on everyone ­— leaving in the middle of the week and at the end of the week and missing classes for five straight weeks. It’ll be nice to get back in the routine and get back on track.”

On Friday, Illinois faces No. 3 Penn State (14-1) — the reigning champions — in its first home match in over a month. The Nittany Lions, led by star outside hitters Megan Courtney and Aiyana Whitneyss, are coming off a 3-0 win ssover the Iowa Hawkeyes. Prior to that victory, the Nittany Lions lost their first match of the season to No. 4 Nebraska 3-2. Last season, Illinois went on the road and defeated Penn State.

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