Illinois return home for conference play with big tests against Maryland, Northwestern

The+Illinois+volleyball+team+huddle+during+their+match+against+Dayton+on+Sept.+10.+The+Illini+will+be+back+home+for+the+first+time+this+season+for+this+weekends+match+up+against+Maryland+on+Friday+and+Northwestern+on+Saturday.+

Photo courtesy of Andy Wenstrand/Illinois Athletics

The Illinois volleyball team huddle during their match against Dayton on Sept. 10. The Illini will be back home for the first time this season for this weekend’s match up against Maryland on Friday and Northwestern on Saturday.

By Drew Friberg, Sports Editor

With two five-set thrillers to close out the preseason, Illinois volleyball enters conference play at 5-5, as it prepares to face Maryland and Northwestern this weekend. 

Tough 3-2 losses to Illinois State and No. 19 Marquette on Saturday gave the team a good idea of where they sit ahead of the season. A few points, 10 to be exact, and Illinois would still be ranked and have a 7-3 record.

Though the Illini fell at the final hurdle this weekend, these losses aren’t indicative of where the team will end up.

“I think it’s just preseason, and preseason is where you get all the gunk out. It doesn’t faze me or make me feel any differently about the team,” senior middle blocker Rylee Hinton said. “This is my fourth preseason now, so I know if preseason looks ugly (we) can look really good come December.”

Looking ahead to Friday, the team will play its first matches at Huff Hall in over 300 days. After a month on the road, the team is looking forward to having Huff Hall behind it again.

Though the Illini had a negative home record last season playing at home helps the team with comfort and energy. Playing at home and away can sometimes be the difference of 10 points on the day.

“I’m so pumped,” said sophomore defensive specialist Caroline Barnes. “We’ve been away for like a month now. It’s fun to play in front of big crowds, but it’s obviously more fun when that big crowd is for you, not against you. I think we’re ready, I think it will be a great energy booster for us.”

First up this weekend for Illinois is Maryland. Maryland currently is sitting on a 9-3 record with a three-win streak, and in the preseason was projected to finish 10th in the Big Ten.

Despite this early projection, the Terrapins are a dangerous roster. Graduate student middle blocker Rainelle Jones ended last season with the highest blocks per set (1.73) in the nation. Illini head coach Chris Tamas doesn’t plan to take facing her lightly despite Illinois being favorites heading into Friday.

“Yeah, [Maryland] has got a really great blocking team,” Tamas said. “Both the groups that we’re going to play this weekend are a bit more experienced, in terms of that grouping of players … As you see with our team the past several years, that matters.”

Northwestern, like Maryland are coming into Saturday’s match with a winning (11-1) record, with its only loss coming at the hands of a familiar opponent to Illinois. The Wildcats dropped their match against the No. 14 Washington Huskies 3-1 — the same score the Illini lost to the Huskies by in week two of preseason.

Northwestern also comes into this match with a ranked win over No. 24 Pepperdine just two weeks ago. This four-win streak combined with its experienced roster make for an incredibly formidable opponent on Saturday night.

Huff Hall sees its first volleyball of the season starting Friday night at 8 p.m. with Illinois’ first conference match against Maryland. Just a little less than a day later, Northwestern and Illinois’ bout will occur at 7 p.m. Saturday night.

 

@DrewFriberg9

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