Illinois volleyball heads east for packed weekend against Rutgers, No. 13 Penn State

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Ryan Ash

Defensive specialist Taylor Kuper prepares to bump the ball during the match against Purdue Oct. 6. Illinois will travel to the east coast to take on both Rutgers and No. 13 Penn State this weekend.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

Now officially at the halfway point into its Big Ten campaign, Illinois will travel to the East Coast to take on both Rutgers and No. 13 Penn State this weekend.

Though the Illini opened their season with several tournaments that featured three matches played in two days, they will play the Scarlet Knights and Nittany Lions in the span of less than 24 hours this weekend, a challenge against top-tier conference competition.

But redshirt junior setter Diana Brown knows their opponents won’t care about their limited time to rest and recover.

“We talked about our schedule a lot, and it’s like either you sit there and you complain about it or you go into practice and you just take it and take the game for what it is,” Brown said. “These two teams, they’re gonna give it their all. They don’t care that we just played last night at 7 p.m. … They’re like, ‘OK cool, let’s play.’ I guess do we sit there and complain about it, or do we take each day for what it is and give it our all?”

Rutgers enters the weekend on an 11-match losing streak, as the Scarlet Knights are 0-10 in conference play — and 8-13 overall — this season. Despite being winless in the Big Ten, Rutgers middle blocker Shealyn McNamara ranks among the top 10 in the conference in blocks, averaging 1.21 per set. 

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    Right side hitter Beka Kojadinovic has been the team’s most dominant offensive threat this season, leading Rutgers in kills (208) and service aces (23).

    The Illini haven’t played against the Scarlet Knights on the road since 2018, though Brown says her teammates won’t need too long to adjust to the atmosphere inside the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway. 

    “Wherever we are, I think it honestly just takes that one serve and pass to get used to a gym,” Brown said. “The Big Ten environments are fun to play in, and I don’t really think it’s gonna be any sort of increased pressure on me.”

    Illinois won’t have much time to rest after taking on Rutgers on Friday night, as it will have to head four hours west to University Park, Pennsylvania for a showdown with No. 13 Penn State on Saturday afternoon.

    Penn State sits at 7-3 in the Big Ten and 14-6 overall, and the Nittany Lions have notched top-10 wins over then-No. 3 Ohio State and then-No. 12 Minnesota, with both victories coming in straight sets.

    The Nittany Lions rank among the top three teams in the conference in hitting percentage (.272), assists (13 per set), kills (14.1 per set) and blocks (3 per set). They have some of the most efficient hitters in the league in middle blockers Kaitlyn Hord and Allie Holland, while Hord also ranks second in the Big Ten in blocks. Right side hitter Jonni Parker also provides an offensive threat, averaging 3.81 kills and 4.37 points per set.

    Penn State, which has been ranked in 58 of the 60 matchups between the two schools, has won each of the last four matchups, and the Illini will look to beat the Nittany Lions on the road for the first time since 2014.

    Head coach Chris Tamas knows it won’t be easy, especially with the quick turnaround, though Penn State also will be coming off a Friday night match, as it will face Maryland at home on Friday night.

    “You don’t have (rest and recovery) anymore,” Tamas said. “Where before you could maybe take a couple days off, maybe if you got some sore arms or sore legs you have a few days to rest those up. Now, you don’t have that rest anymore. You gotta go within 24 hours to play another big matchup.”

    Illinois will take on Rutgers on Friday night at 5:30 Central Standard Time before playing Penn State on Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. 

    Though the Illini’s two opponents are on different sides of the Big Ten standings, Brown says they don’t look at rankings or records when preparing and practicing during the week.

    “It doesn’t really matter what tier the team is in; they’re gonna come in, they have a game plan against us and we also have to make adjustments,” Brown said. “We never really look at a team’s record. … Every Big Ten team gives it their all, and any night any team can win.”

     

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