Illinois travels to Iowa for Big Ten season opener, looks to build on nonconference success


Photo Courtesy of Craig Pessman/Fighting Illini Athletics

Head volleyball coach Chris Tamas speaks to his team in a huddle during their game against the University of Colorado Boulder on Sept. 4. Illinois will travel to Iowa for the Big Ten season opener and hopes to build on their nonconference success.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

For the first time since 2019, the Illini will enter their conference slate with several nonconference matches under their belt. After a 7-11 winter campaign, Illinois heads into its Big Ten opener with an 8-3 record and a desire to improve on last season.

“I don’t think last season was anything to be too upset over,” said graduate student outside hitter Megan Cooney. “I think that we learned a lot about ourselves, and we were close with some really big teams and really proved that we were right there with some big teams, so I think that this season our goal is just to get over that little hump and actually beat some of these really good teams.”

While the Illini’s 2020-2021 season was delayed to the winter and consisted entirely of Big Ten play, the team returned to its normal routine of opening the season with out-of-conference opposition this year. After opening the winter season with a road trip to Iowa City, the Illini will once again head west to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes on Wednesday.

Iowa has a mostly retained roster, highlighted by All-Big Ten First-Team right side hitter Courtney Buzzerio, who led the team in kills and service aces last season. Buzzerio also currently leads the conference in kills with 182 through 39 sets.

Sophomore setter Bailey Ortega sits third in the Big Ten in assists with 390, just 20 ahead of Illinois’ Diana Brown. Like Brown, Ortega has already made big strides this season, as she has surpassed her assist total from the shortened winter season, a campaign in which she led the Hawkeyes with 378 assists while notching the team’s second-most aces with 19.

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    The Hawkeyes finished the season 3-11, while they are 2-8 so far this year. Also having competed in the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge in Champaign against Washington and Colorado, Iowa took both Pac-12 opponents to four sets, though it ultimately fell on both occasions.

    Illinois head coach Chris Tamas doesn’t read too much into past records, especially since the Big Ten is among the best and deepest conferences in the country.

    “I think the Big Ten is as deep as it has been, at least in the 10 years that I’ve been in this conference,” Tamas said. “Whatever someone’s previous record was, it doesn’t matter. Good or bad, we just have to be ready to battle and take all the matches that we can, and the first one starts on Wednesday against Iowa.”

    One of the Illini standouts through 11 matches this season has been middle blocker Kennedy Collins, who was named to the all-tournament team in three of Illinois’ four tournaments. At the Redbird Classic last weekend, the Zion native led the Illini with 32 kills and 15 blocks while also recording a season-high eight blocks against Illinois State on Friday night.

    Though Collins racked up several accolades during nonconference play, she credits her teammates for giving her good passes and setting her up for success.

    “I wouldn’t be able to do it without my teammates, so I think what’s going right is just us connecting on the court, having great passes,” Collins said. “Having good passes and having a great setter to connect with, I think that’s what’s going well.”

    Illinois takes on Iowa at 6 p.m. Wednesday, with the match airing on Big Ten Network. The Illini will then return home to Champaign to take on in-state rival Northwestern for the team’s annual Stuff Huff match on Saturday.

    “They’ve got good weapons, just like we all do,” Tamas said. “It’s always about can you win the serve and pass battle, and then can you score points when you need to.

    “They’re also going to have a say in that as well, so we have to bring our A-game and be able to compete, and hopefully come out with a win.”



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