Illini go 2-0 at Bulldog Brawl, veterans lead way out of slump

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Jonathan Bonaguro

Blayke Hranicka sets up the ball during a match against the University of Tennessee on Sept. 1.

By Gabby Hajduk, Staff Writer

Illinois volleyball is climbing out of its slump at the right time. With less than a week until the Big Ten season opens, the Illini focused on closing their nonconference season on a high note.

No. 19 Illinois (5-4) did just that after going 2-0 at the Bulldog Brawl at Butler this weekend. Illinois beat the University of the Pacific (8-4) on Friday morning and Loyola Marymount (6-6) on Saturday morning, winning both matches 3-1.

“On Friday, we just started with this thought that we had established our identity and what we wanted to do with Marquette,” said senior Ashlyn Fleming. “With this tournament, we needed to really start developing that and continuing to do it. That’s what we focused on Friday and Saturday, just focusing on ourselves and staying connected as a team.”

Both wins came in a similar fashion. The Illini dropped the first set of each match but dominated the rest of the way. Illinois kept Pacific and Loyola Marymount at an eight-point margin after the first sets.

“The first sets of both matches the other teams played good volleyball,” said head coach Chris Tamas. “When you play good teams like that, it’s going to back and forth or they might have a good run, so it’s just the sport. Obviously, I’d like to start faster and create the lead instead of coming from behind one, but some of it’s the use of our players and just catching up to the speed of the game or seeing a different type of opponent.”

Illini veterans paved the way to the weekend’s victories. Seniors Jacqueline Quade, Fleming and junior Megan Cooney led the team in kills both matches.

Quade led the trio with 12 kills against Pacific and 16 against Loyola Marymount. Fleming also recorded 12 kills against Pacific while Cooney had 11.

Fleming said the team’s mechanics in serving and passing were strong in both matches, which gave setter Diana Brown the ability to set the Illini all over the court. Brown had 39 assists against Pacific and 42 against Loyola Marymount.

While the coaching staff has been working to find the right group of starters, Tamas believes a lot of their success comes from the stability of the senior group.

“You’re relying on the players that had that experience in the past, whether it’s the sweet sixteen a couple years ago or the final four last year,” Tamas said. “They have experience in these pressure moments. I think as long as they’re steady, we are, too. Just showing the freshmen and newcomers on how to be on the court when things aren’t going so great.”

The Illini are looking to continue playing consistently in anticipation for the start of their Big Ten season at Huff Hall Friday. Illinois will face No. 1 Nebraska (8-1), who beat the Illini in the NCAA Final Four, robbing them of a chance at the NCAA Championship last season.

“The fact that it’s Nebraska and this is the only time we play them this year (makes it more intense),” Tamas said. “It’s the rematch of the last match we lost last year. It’s a great environment to have the first Big Ten match. It’s great for volleyball, too, so we can show the country what it’s like to play in Huff in a big environment.”

While Nebraska may pose the biggest challenge for Illinois, the team is also looking forward to playing Iowa (6-5) on Saturday night. The Hawkeyes will be coming off their first conference match against the Wildcats.

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