Illinois to face No. 9 Penn State for weekend matches

Redshirt+Freshman+Ellie+Holzman+serves+during+the+match+against+Wisconsin+on+Sunday.+The+Illini+will+face+off+against+Penn+State+tonight+and+tomorrow.

Photo Courtesy of David Craan/Fighting Illini Athletics

Redshirt Freshman Ellie Holzman serves during the match against Wisconsin on Sunday. The Illini will face off against Penn State tonight and tomorrow.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

Illinois will travel to University Park, Pennsylvania, to face No. 9 Penn State in Rec Hall on Friday and Saturday. Penn State has yet to play this season due to COVID-19 concerns.

Penn State will look significantly different from last year, with eight new additions and 10 departures. The biggest unknown is likely Penn State’s defensive specialist position, as much of last season’s rotation is no longer with the team. However, Penn State does have major continuity at the middle blocker position, with returning All-Americans Kaitlyn Hord and Serena Gray.

The combination of Penn State’s roster turnover and their late start to the season may put Illinois at a bit of a disadvantage in terms of scouting and game-planning.

“It probably will be (tough to prepare) just because they haven’t played,” said sophomore middle blocker Kennedy Collins. “We’ll just look at the hitters or the people that were there last year and we know are returning. For the new players, we’re going in kind of clueless, but we’re just looking at the old players.”

This matchup will be a big test for the Illini’s two sophomore middle blockers, Collins and Rylee Hinton. Last week they fought through a tough matchup against Wisconsin’s 6-foot-8 All-American Dana Rettke, and this week may be just as challenging.

“There are talented (middle blockers) in this league, and Riley and Kennedy are up there as well,” said head coach Chris Tamas. “Whenever you have those matchups with two great middles or whether it’s an outside or setter or anything, you just need to figure out what you can slow down and what you can kind of pick apart if you can. I thought they did a nice job of slowing down (Wisconsin’s) middles more so the second night once we got a beat on them. Frustrated them really well from the offensive end. We’ll look to continue to use both of them as a force and see what we can come up with this week.”

One thing to look out for is redshirt freshman Ellie Holzman’s status for the weekend. Holzman went down with a right leg injury during last Saturday’s loss to Wisconsin, and the severity of her injury is currently unknown. She had been in the midst of a breakout season as an outside hitter, tallying 30.5 kills in her first two matches at Iowa prior to a tough outing in the first match against Wisconsin.

After she went out against Wisconsin, redshirt sophomore Bruna Vrankovic and freshman Raina Terry filled in her playing time, with Vrankovic putting up a solid 10-kill performance against Wisconsin. Both will likely figure into this weekend’s game plan if Holzman can’t go.

Penn State is Illinois’ second top 10-ranked opponent in a row, making it difficult for them to rack up wins, especially with such an inexperienced roster. Against the No. 1-ranked team in the country last week, Illinois played a bit sporadically but ultimately stepped up to the challenge and handed Wisconsin their first set loss of the season. Tamas thinks the experience against elite teams has been huge for the team developmentally.

“It’s always been tough,” Tamas said. “For the last decade or so, the Big Ten has been at the top of the echelon in terms of (having) six or seven teams in the top 25 and sending that many teams or more to the tournament. We know every night that we step in and play that we’re going to face a top-ranked opponent or even if the teams aren’t ranked, they’re still within the top 50 or 60. Just a part of being in the conference.”

@WesHollenberg

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