No. 21 Illinois volleyball looks to play with patience against

By Eli Schwadron

Illinois volleyball head coach Kevin Hambly has stressed energy, heart and defense through 21 regular season games. After watching his team commit 36 errors and lose its final three sets to No. 17 Purdue on Sunday afternoon, Hambly harped on something new: patience.

“We thought we needed to score fast (against Purdue),” Hambly said. “It’s easy to swing for the fence. It’s easy to go for the home run and strike out. It’s easy to take a quick shot in basketball.”

No. 21 Illinois (13-8) faces Michigan State (14-7) at home at 7 p.m. Friday before taking on No. 25 Michigan (15-6) at Huff Hall on Saturday. This weekend, the Illini will look to prolong rallies and avoid costly mistakes on the offensive end.

“You’ve got to be smarter,” Hambly said. “I’d rather be the San Antonio Spurs and run the offense awhile. We want to grind out rallies and be patient.”

Michigan State is a fringe top-25 team. The Spartans are coming off a 3-0 loss to No. 3 Penn State on Oct. 25. Prior to that, head coach Cathy George’s squad swept No. 11 Ohio State on Oct. 21.

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6-foot-4 middle blocker Alyssa Garvelink, 6-foot-4 opposite hitter Chloe Reinig and 6-foot-6 opposite hitter Brooke Kranda make up the core of the Spartans’ long and physical attack. Hambly said Garvelink is “just below” Purdue’s Danielle Cuttino — one of the best middle blockers in the country — in terms of skill level.

“They’re scary athletic and scary physical. Hopefully, we can out-skill them,” Hambly said. “They’re physical at the net … when they pass well, they do great. When they don’t, things can go in a bad direction. It’s gonna (come down to) who’s taking care of the ball and keeping the ball on the court.”

The Illini are 47-25 all-time against the Spartans and have won the past two matchups. Meanwhile, the program is 47-21 all-time versus the Wolverines and has won the past five matchups dating back to 2012.

The history looks good for Illinois, but nothing is given in the best volleyball conference in the nation.

Outside hitter Jocelynn Birks, middle blocker Katie Stadick and setter Jordyn Poulter will look to get back on track with cleaner offensive outings this weekend. After coming up big in spurts against Indiana and Purdue, setter Alexis Viliunas will likely continue to see increased court time, as well.

Illinois swept Indiana on Friday and then jumped out to a 2-0 set lead against Purdue on Saturday. Opposite hitter Naya Crittenden said the Illini failed to maintain the same levels of energy and execution in the final three sets, dropping all three to the Boilermakers.

“The pattern is when we’re playing these teams and they get a run of points, that’s when we start to lose it a little bit,” Crittenden said. “We just have to figure out a way to not worry about that so much, come back and punch even harder and get our points back.”

Like Hambly, Crittenden has noticed need for patience on offense. 

“Sometimes we want to go up and get that big kill,” Crittenden said. “That’s the big thing – understanding that you may not always be able to go up and get that big swing. So when you are in that long rally, you need to figure out different ways to score. It’s a grind, it’s always a grind.”

Crittenden said that every Big Ten match is a battle, and the team needs to remember to “take it one point at a time,” one of Hambly’s favorite phrases.

Illinois is 4-6 in conference play with ranked teams Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska looming in the coming weeks. But Hambly is confident.

“You have to move on. If you focus on the losses, you’re just gonna be mired in crap all the time,” Hambly said. “We haven’t lost optimism. I still think we can get this thing going.”

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