Tournament time: Illinois volleyball travels to Lexington for first-round showdown with West Virginia

The+Illini+volleyball+team+huddles+up+during+the+game+against+Indiana+on+Nov.+12.+The+team+is+traveling+to+Lexington+for++the+first-round+showdown+with+West+Virginia.

Angel Saldivar

The Illini volleyball team huddles up during the game against Indiana on Nov. 12. The team is traveling to Lexington for the first-round showdown with West Virginia.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

For the first time since 2019, Illinois will be playing postseason volleyball.

The Illini will be heading east to Lexington, Kentucky, for the first round of the NCAA tournament against Big 12 foe West Virginia on Friday at 4 p.m. The Mountaineers enter the contest with a 19-9 record, while they also are making their first tournament appearance in program history.

Illinois boasts two graduate students — outside hitter Megan Cooney and setter Kylie Bruder — who have been with the team for three separate postseason runs since 2017. While Bruder didn’t see any playing time as a freshman, Cooney participated in all but two matches, helping Illinois advance to the Sweet 16 as an unranked team following a win over Hawaii and an upset over No. 8 Washington on its own court.

That experience is invaluable, especially since Illinois once again heads into the postseason as an unranked team, says head coach Chris Tamas.

“They have a lot of experience playing a lot of tough matches in different environments,” Tamas said. “That experience goes a long way, so when you get in those moments, it’s not like the first time we’ve ever been there. They have experience; they’re able to communicate that with the team. A lot of other teams are bringing a lot of tournament experience as well, so it should be a fun ride.”

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Looking across the court to West Virginia, the Mountaineers, who finished third in their conference, had two players earn First-Team All-Big 12 honors in fifth-year seniors outside hitter Adrian Ell and middle blocker Briana Lynch, while senior setter Lacey Zerwas was named Second-Team All-Big 12.

Ell transferred to Morgantown from Florida State, where she played with Illinois junior Jessica Nunge for two seasons. Ell leads the Mountaineers with 335 kills while notching double-digit kills in 12 of her last 13 matches. Her 3.42 kills per set was the seventh-best mark in the Big 12, while she registered the 10th-highest aces/set mark (0.29) and the fourth-most points per set with 4.19.

Lynch received a First-Team All-Conference nod for the second consecutive season, recording 283 kills alongside a team-high .351 clip, the fifth-best percentage in the conference.. Defensively, the fifth-year senior made 95 total blocks, including a career-high 22 block solos.

Though West Virginia is a talented defensive team, led by Lynch, Illinois has already seen several different schemes throughout Big Ten play. Redshirt junior setter Diana Brown says playing in that conference boosts your tournament resume and makes preparing for opponents easier.

“We see a lot of different offensive and defensive schemes, so to our advantage, we get to play against a lot of different teams,” Brown said. “When we do get to see West Virginia, we’ve already seen their defensive scheme, so we gotta bring it all every single night, and it’s a reminder that it’s a marathon not a sprint.”

Zerwas was named to the conference’s second team for the second straight season, recording 1,011 assists and 10.32 assists/set, the second-highest total in the Big 12, while notching a career-best .228 hitting percentage. Her 2.70 digs/set were the 10th-best in the conference, while teammate and fifth-year senior defensive specialist Alexa Hasting notched 3.92 digs per set, the fifth-highest mark.

Skye Stokes, sophomore outside hitter/defensive specialist, sits in second in the conference in aces with 55, a team-high.

West Virginia enters the weekend looking for its first NCAA tournament win in school history, and Cooney knows the Mountaineers are going to come into Friday’s meeting ready.

“We prepare ourselves all season to play against all these different teams with different skills, and I think the Big Ten really prepares us for that,” Cooney said. “I’m super excited, and I trust in all of our training that we’ve had to go out and compete starting this weekend.”

 

@JacksonJanes3

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