Illinois volleyball welcomes defending NCAA champ No. 3 Wisconsin to Champaign


Daniel Zhou

Senior middle blocker Rylee Hinton smacks the ball over the net during the game against No. 11 Penn State on Oct. 26.

By Drew Friberg and Adam Rosen

The past week has been huge for Illinois; it’s what the team has been building toward all season. A 3-1 win over then-No. 11 Penn State delivered Illinois its first ranked win of the season after 10 tries. With another ranked opponent looming, the Illini will look for another ranked win on Thursday night as they welcome the No. 3 Wisconsin Badgers to Huff Hall.

Wisconsin is currently on a 10-match win streak, including a sweep over No. 1 Nebraska just a week ago. In this stretch, the Illini traveled to Madison to play the Badgers on Oct. 2, where Illinois fell in the fifth set after eight attacking errors. The Illini are the only team in conference this season to take two sets off of the defending national champs in their home gym.

While the Badgers’ current run is nothing short of dominant, the Illini’s has been anything but. The squad is coming off of just its second 2-0 week in conference play, its first since week one.

That being said, Illinois’ recent wins have been convincing. While junior outside hitter Raina Terry has played lights out all season from an offensive perspective, the Illini have now been fielding a rigid defense to go along with it. With senior middle blockers Rylee Hinton and Kennedy Collins being healthy at the same time for the Illini, the pair have been making the difference at the net when it matters.

“The prep for middles is all about blocking,” Hinton said. “We are practicing the exact shots we know the other team is hitting, so when it comes to game time, I’ve been doing it all week so I can do it right now.”

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In addition to defensive prowess from the middles in recent matches, putting balls away has helped take the heat of big blocks away from Terry and the other hitters. With the pair racking up 14 kills against the Nittany Lions, diversifying the attack helped open up more lanes for other offensive players late in the game.

“If we can only get the ball to the outsides, that’s really, really tough on them,” redshirt senior setter Diana Brown said. “Once we start getting the ball to the middles and they both are doing well, (the other team) has to pick who to stop.”

The key to shutting down Wisconsin is getting through the block. When healthy, the Badgers field one of the best blocks in the nation, spearheaded by Anna Smrek. Smrek, who stands at 6-foot-9, is the tallest NCAA volleyball player in the country and as a freshman won the NCAA Final Four MVP.

“Yeah, they are playing well, and they are back at full strength,” head coach Chris Tamas said. “They were missing (Smrek) there for a while. She’s all of 6-9. That’s big. You don’t see that very often. The challenge for them is that they’ve always had a good defense and that size up front. It makes it that much harder to produce a kill.”

Producing a win against the Badgers will be a tall task for the Illini, but the momentum going into this match, combined with the home atmosphere, will give them the best setting to challenge.

Action starts on Thursday at 7 p.m. in Huff Hall as the Illini look for their biggest win of the season to date.



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