Volleyball season in review: Illinois makes NCAA tournament return, pulls off three road upsets in bounce-back year

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Angel Saldivar

The Illini volleyball team huddles together before a set during the match against Indiana on Nov. 12. Sports editor Jackson Janes reviews the ’21 volleyball season as it officially came to an end on Thursday.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

Following Tuesday’s loss to No. 10 Nebraska in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, Illinois’ season has come to a close.

After finishing the spring season with a 7-11 record that only featured conference matches, the Illini bounced back in the fall, notching a seventh-place finish during Big Ten play and an overall regular-season record of 22-12.

Illinois won its first postseason matches since 2018 en route to a Sweet 16 berth following an upset of the reigning national champion, while the season also featured a fifth-year player earning their first First-Team All-Big Ten honors.

Let’s look back on the Illini’s fall campaign.

Hot start during nonconference play

The Illini opened their fall nonconference slate on a strong note at the Panther Invite in Milwaukee after only playing Big Ten opposition in the spring. 

Beating UC Santa Barbara in five sets in its season opener, Illinois cruised the rest of the weekend, taking down both Milwaukee and Valparaiso in straight sets to start the season 3-0. Junior middle blocker Kennedy Collins, junior outside/right side hitter Jessica Nunge and redshirt junior setter Diana Brown were named to the all-tournament team, while Collins also was named the most valuable player.

Opening its home campaign in front of fans at Huff Hall for the first time since 2019, Illinois battled against No. 11 Washington and Colorado but finished the weekend 0-2 in the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge, falling in four sets and five sets, respectively. 

Despite the two losses, the Illini welcomed former players and Tokyo Olympic gold medalists Michelle Bartsch-Hackley, Jordyn Poulter and Erin Virtue back to Champaign, and Collins was named to the all-tournament team for a second consecutive week.

Illinois got back to winning ways at the Bluejay Invitational, taking down Omaha in four sets and sweeping SMU before falling to No. 19 Creighton in four. Sophomore outside hitter Raina Terry and graduate student outside hitter Megan Cooney were named to the all-tournament team after the Illini went 2-1 in Omaha.

To close out nonconference play, Illinois traveled to Normal and played lights out, winning its matches against Missouri, Illinois State and North Texas in straight sets to head into Big Ten play with an 8-3 record and lots of momentum. Nunge, Collins and Brown all were named to the all-tournament team once again, while Brown was named the Big Ten Setter of the Week.

Three straight wins to open Big Ten action

Illinois continued its hot start to the season in conference play, opening Big Ten action with two straight dramatic five-set wins over Iowa and Northwestern. After falling in the first sets in both matches, the Illini won the second and third sets both nights before losing the fourth and cruising in the decisive fifth set.

In arguably its biggest win of the regular season, Illinois took down No. 4 Purdue in West Lafayette on Oct. 1, with Cooney registering a season-high 21 kills, Terry notching a double-double with 14 kills and 17 digs and Brown recording 50 assists. The victory was also the program’s highest-ranked win since 2011.

Early-season losing streak

After starting Big Ten play with a 3-0 record, Illinois struggled over the course of the next week, though a tough schedule is to blame, as it played Wisconsin twice and Purdue again over a seven-day stretch.

Returning to Huff Hall on Oct. 3, the Illini won the first set against the Badgers, but they couldn’t contain a talented Badger offense after that. No. 5 Wisconsin won the next three sets to leave Champaign with a 3-1 win, snapping Illinois’ six-match winning streak.

Three days after pulling off their road upset, the Illini welcomed the sixth-ranked Boilermakers to town and nearly notched their second upset in less than a week. After leading 2-1 heading into the fourth set, Illinois could not hang on, with Purdue taking the fourth set before narrowly winning the fifth set, 15-12.

Illinois then was tasked with traveling north to Madison to take on No. 4 Wisconsin once again. After snatching the first set, the Illini couldn’t keep their momentum going, with the Badgers closing out the night in dominant fashion and taking the win, moving Illinois down to 3-3 in conference play.

Another road upset rounds out four-match winning streak

After sweeping Iowa and falling in straight sets to No. 9 Nebraska, Illinois went on a four-match winning streak over the next two weeks, beating Northwestern, Michigan, Rutgers and No. 13 Penn State.

Taking down both the Wildcats and Wolverines in four sets, the Illini headed east to take on the Scarlet Knights and Nittany Lions on Oct. 29 and 30, respectively.

Friday’s match against 0-10 Rutgers was anything but routine, with the Scarlet Knights taking the match the full five sets, while Nunge recorded a season-high and tied a career-high of 16 kills in the Illini’s five-set victory.

On the road against the No. 13 Nittany Lions, the Illini looked much more comfortable, even after losing the first set. Illinois used big nights from its entire starting lineup to walk out of State College with a four-set victory, its second ranked road upset of the season.

Tough four-match homestand

After a stretch of four matches out of five on the road, the Illini returned to Champaign for a four-match homestand, though it wasn’t smooth sailing. Illinois took on No. 9 Nebraska, No. 11 Minnesota, Indiana and No. 10 Ohio State over the two-week stretch, falling in three of the four matches.

The Illini struggled to contain talented Cornhusker, Golden Gopher and Buckeye squads, falling in straight sets in each match. Illinois was able to pick up one victory on its home court, though, sweeping Indiana on Nov. 12.

Strong finish to regular season

Sitting at 9-7 in conference play, the Illini needed a strong finish to conference action to essentially lock up a spot in the NCAA tournament. And that’s exactly what they did.

Despite being on the road for three of its final four matches, Illinois took care of business, beating Indiana, Maryland and Michigan State in straight sets while falling to Michigan in four sets in Ann Arbor.

With a 12-8 record, the Illini finished seventh in the Big Ten and hoped to hear its name called during the NCAA tournament selection show just two days after beating the Spartans.

Megan Cooney earns First-Team All-Big Ten, AVCA Northeast All-Region accolades

For the first time in her career, Cooney earned First-Team All-Big Ten honors after registering 376 kills, 20 assists, 29 aces, 282 digs and 448 points, all of which were career highs.

Nicknamed the “Iron Woman” at Illinois, Cooney holds the program record for most sets played (554).

NCAA tournament play

Gathered in the Orange Krush Club at State Farm Center, Illinois got what it hoped for, earning a berth in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2019. The Illini were handed a first-round matchup with the West Virginia Mountaineers, a team making its first postseason appearance in program history, while they were put into the same group as the No. 7 Kentucky Wildcats, which won the national championship last season.

Taking on West Virginia on Dec. 3, Illinois struggled early on, falling behind big in the first set and ultimately losing the frame. The Illini bounced back, though, winning the next three to secure its first postseason victory since 2018 and advancing to the second round with a matchup with the Wildcats looming.

Heading into the Dec. 4 meeting, the Wildcats had only lost on their home court once all season, with that defeat coming three months prior, while they also hadn’t lost a single set in a month.

Illinois was undeterred, though, winning the first set, 25-22, before falling in the second set. With fans rooting against them and the odds not in their favor, the Illini dominated the rest of the way, winning the third set by 15 points before maintaining control for most of the fourth frame to walk out of Lexington with a 3-1 victory. In just her second postseason match, Terry looked like a seasoned veteran, recording a career-high 27 kills in the win.

With the win, head coach Chris Tamas earned his 100th career win as head coach at Illinois, and it meant the Illini secured a spot in Regionals play against the No. 10 Nebraska Cornhuskers in Austin, Texas.

Having already played the Cornhuskers twice this season and losing to them in straight sets both times, the Illini knew what they were getting into. With momentum and a postseason upset already on its resume, Illinois knew anything was possible. 

But before the match, the Illini were dealt an unfortunate blow: Cooney would be unavailable after coming down with an undisclosed illness.

Without their fifth-year All-Big Ten outside hitter, Illinois struggled to put together a cohesive attack, and Nebraska made it pay. 

The Cornhuskers were in command for almost the entirety of the mach, winning in straight sets (25-12, 25-21, 25-17) to advance to the Elite Eight — and eventually the Final Four after they beat the No. 2 Texas Longhorns in their own gym in four sets — and ending the Illini’s season.

Looking ahead

After finishing the season with a 22-12 record, the Illini will lose Cooney and graduate student Kylie Bruder next year, while senior libero/defensive specialist will also graduate.

All three losses will be big, but Illinois also returns a lot of production: Nunge and Terry both will return and will take on big roles in Cooney’s absence. None of the team’s middle blockers are expected to depart, with Collins, junior Kyla Swanson and redshirt freshman Maddie Whittington all providing big contributions all season.

Outside hitter/middle blocker Ellie Holzman also will likely return after missing the entirety of the fall season with a torn ACL. The redshirt sophomore played in four matches in the spring and tallied 35 kills and three aces.

Freshman libero/defensive specialist Caroline Barnes played in all but one of the Illini’s matches this season and earned a starting spot for most of the year. She will likely take on Taylor Kuper’s role next season and has already proven to be a reliable asset on this veteran squad.

Arguably most important is Brown’s return, as she proved to be invaluable for Illinois’ offense all season and was the glue that held the team together all year long.

The Illini proved that the spring season was just a fluke, and they should be just fine next season despite the losses of back-to-back First-Team All-Big Ten players.

 

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