Illinois volleyball splits matches in season opening tournament


James Hoeck

Senior outside hitter Jessica Nunge elevates the ball to serve against Wisconsin during the homecoming match on Oct. 3. Despite Illini’s match performance Nunge managed to pull 15 kills against Ole Miss leading to the team’s victory on Sunday.

By Drew Friberg, Sports Editor

No. 17 Illinois volleyball opened its season with two matches at the Ole Miss Invitational, where it dropped its opener against No. 9 Georgia Tech, 3-0 (21-25, 15-25, 17-25), but won its second match against Ole Miss, 3-1 (25-16, 26-24, 18-25, 25-20).

Illinois started off the weekend as an underdog against Georgia Tech. It was a tough opener for the Illini, who found themselves down from the start.

Although senior outside hitter Jessica Nunge opened the Illini’s season with a kill, the Yellowjackets led shortly afterward as senior outside hitter and two-time All-American Julia Bergmann got to work early. Bergmann was the Yellowjackets’ most prolific scorer and led the match with 12 kills.

The Illini kept the match close in the first set, never trailing more than six points. Although the Illini used their first timeout wisely, bouncing back from an 8-4 deficit, the Yellowjackets won the race to double digits and carried this momentum throughout the set. 

The Illini made a late surge following big plays from sophomore transfer opposite Kayla Burbage, who led the team in kills with 11 in her first match as an Illini, making it 21-23. However, Georgia Tech closed out the set following an Illini error and a kill from Bergmann.

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Set two is where the Yellowjackets really imposed themselves. The Illini lost this set 25-15 following a combination of attack errors and aces by the Yellowjackets. 

This proved to be a major difference in the match, as Georgia Tech notched five aces and just 13 errors in the match to Illinois’ 0 aces and 19 errors. Set two put this major difference on display, but throughout the first set even, the Illini made plenty of handling mistakes.

“You go back to the first set and there were maybe 70 balls that we could’ve handled well and we just didn’t,” Illini head coach Chris Tamas said. “I think that’s just part of the first match jitters, maybe. I told the team after the match, that was not our best execution.”

Set three saw Illinois bounce back from a tough second set, leading many times and sticking with Georgia Tech until 15-15, before it began to falter. Junior Georgia Tech setter Isabella D’Amico took over late in the third set, tallying three assists in the final six points. She also went toe-to-toe with Illinois’ graduate student setter Diana Brown, as both tallied 29 assists in a similar amount of attempts.

Standout performers for the Illini in their first match of the season were Burbage and Brown, who kept up with the Yellowjackets’ top performers, while the rest of the Illini lagged behind. While Georgia Tech had two players earn double digit kills, only Burbage managed to match this feat for the Illini, while the second highest for Illinois managed only 7 kills.

While the team struggled to capitalize on opportunities for kills in the first match, Illinois had three players with double digit kills against Ole Miss, with junior outside hitter Raina Terry and Nunge earning 15 kills each on 32 attempts. Burbage in her first two matches for Illinois earned double digit kills both times. 

“(Burbage) was fantastic,” Tamas said after Saturday’s match. “11 kills, 2 errors in 20 attempts, .450 (hit %). Those are some pretty good numbers.”

Illinois started its second match of the weekend off hot, immediately putting a lot of pressure on Ole Miss. After forcing many attacking errors and a solid start from Brown, the Illini forced the Rebels to take the first timeout of the match, as Illinois led 12-7.

Brown totaled 37 assists over the four sets, eight of which came in the first set. She also tallied 4 of her team-high 9 digs, as she led the Illini to a first set victory, 25-16.

After the first set, the Rebels really started to turn up the pressure, as senior outside hitter Anna Bair began to impose herself on the match. She ended the match with a match-high 16 kills in 26 attempts, averaging a .462 hit percentage.

Burbage managed to keep up with her in set two, however, as the Illini were able to withstand the Bair onslaught and put pressure on the Ole Miss serve. Illinois were able to narrowly edge out Ole Miss in set two, 26-24 following clutch plays from Terry.

In set three, Bair and sophomore outside hitter Julia Dyess completely took over for the Rebels, and the Illini attackers were unable to keep up. Following early pressure from Dyess, who was the first to reach double digit kills in the match, Illinois was unable to keep the set close, trailing by more than five points for the entire set as Ole Miss took set three 25-18.

Set four saw Illinois thwart Ole Miss’ momentum early, as each team traded blows throughout. Nunge began to be very involved in the match, as her serve became a powerful tool in the Illini’s success. She totaled 4 aces in the match. 

Following a media timeout at 15-14 in favor of Illinois, the Illini unleashed the prowess shown in the first two sets, as they began to run away with the match. After a last ditch timeout by the Rebels at 23-20 in favor of the Illini, two attack errors eventually ended the match. Illinois closed out the fourth set 25-20, ending the match 3-1.

Although the Illini won this match, they tallied 23 errors; more than their match against the Yellowjackets. The Illini will need to polish their offense moving forward, as the tough approaching schedule won’t allow for 23 errors in a win.

The team is in action next on Friday and Saturday at the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge, as it takes on Colorado on Friday and No. 8 Washington on Saturday.



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