Volleyball takes down Penn State

Members+of+the+Spike+Squad+student+section+sing+%E2%80%9CHail+to+the+Orange%E2%80%9D+during+a+break+in+the+match+against+Penn+State+at+Huff+Hall+on+November+10.+The+Illini+won+3-2.

Austin Yattoni

Members of the Spike Squad student section sing “Hail to the Orange” during a break in the match against Penn State at Huff Hall on November 10. The Illini won 3-2.

By Brian Binz, Staff writer

Against Wisconsin, it was 2013. As for Nebraska and Penn State, it was 2014.

Those were the last years the Illinois volleyball team beat its Big Ten opponents until this month, when the Illini beat all three, finishing off the trifecta with a dramatic five-set win over Penn State in front of a packed Huff Hall.

For other teams, the stage may have been too big, but according to senior Jordyn Poulter, nothing intimidates this team anymore.

“It’s really fun that we’ve been in the position to where we can play freely against these better teams,” Poulter said.

Illinois is no stranger to big stages, but against Penn State, the game didn’t start well for the team.

Penn State combined an aggressive serve with smothering defense to jump out to a 20-9 start before finishing off the Illini 25-15.

“They served well,” said Illinois head coach Chris Tamas. “The first set was an anomaly, because I had never seen that from this team.”

The Illini quickly bounced back, winning the second game after being tied 20-20 to even the game score to one apiece.

Tamas said he thought his team could settle into the high-energy environment and adjust with minimal sideline coordination. Due to the sellout 4,152-person crowd — the first sellout since the 2017 Stuff Huff game — many times, it was hard for the coaches to communicate with their squad on the court.

“When it’s that loud, you can’t really make any calls in between,” Tamas said. “That’s the importance of having good floor leadership.”

Against Penn State, there was no better floor general than Poulter.

She put up a usual eye-catching stat line: 55 assists to go with 13 digs, seven kills and six block assists, with many of her points coming off crafty dumps to end a long rally.

Behind Poulter, the Illini took game three as well. The Illini showed just how comfortable they were, too, dancing to “YMCA” during breaks.

Illini players threw their hands in the air as well with the next game being a potential clincher to beat Penn State for the first time since 2014.

“We definitely have a lot of different personalities,” Poulter said. “Some people thrive with being looser. I think it’s great that everyone’s finding what keeps them in the zone.”

Penn State took the fourth set, setting up another fifth set for the Illini.

Just like every other time they’ve been taken to a decisive fifth game, the Illini found a way to pull it out.

After falling behind 3-0, Illinois rallied to even the score at 12 before two blocks by Ali Bastianelli and Poulter sealed the deal.

On the final point, it was Bastianelli and Poulter combining that finally put the last nail in the coffin for them in the Big Ten.

“With the crowd we had, it will be very memorable to these seniors,” Poulter said.

It was another memorable night to add to junior Jacqueline Quade’s already long list of notable nights, as she set a career high with 29 kills to lead the game, with 73 sets coming her way. Quade played every rally of the game.

Penn State attacked Quade in the back line, but time and time again, she showed her passing mettle to the tune of 12 digs.

“I take it as a challenge,” Quade said. “Obviously that’s the situation; they’re gonna get their blocks, they’re gonna get their digs; you gotta stick with it.”

These milestones show progress for the Illinois program that just two years ago seemed to be in limbo with head coach Kevin Hambly leaving after a disappointing year where the team missed the tournament. These seniors don’t forget where they’ve come from.

“Beating Nebraska for the first time and Wisconsin and Penn State and all these teams over the last year, it feels really good because there is progress being made,” Bastianelli said. “It feels good to be rewarded with these kind of wins.”

After a Sweet 16 run last year, the Illini returned most of their starters and played one of their toughest schedules in a long time.

Now they’ve checked off just about every box, with postseason play ahead of them.

“You think you’ve got a team that’s built to [accomplish your goals], but even then, you don’t know how your team will perform in big moments like this,” Tamas said. “It’s everyone’s making a play along the way.”

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