The Daily Illini

Illinois volleyball looks to capture first road win against Northwestern since 2012

By Eli Schwadron

Illinois volleyball hasn’t won on the road against Northwestern since 2012. No. 18 Illinois is looking to change that Wednesday night in Evanston.

The Illini (15-8) face the Wildcats (13-10) at 7 p.m. on Wednesday. Illinois has won on the road against every other Big Ten school in the past four years, with the exception of Northwestern and Minnesota.

Head coach Kevin Hambly is well aware.

“For this week I (told the team), ‘Hey look, we haven’t won up there in a long time. And this is why — because we haven’t been emotionally invested,” he said. “We’ve gone up there, won a couple sets and then relaxed … We can yell at you or give you some kind of speech and we can give you quotes — we can do all kinds of things — but really it comes down to if you guys want to be in this.”

A lot will depend on the team’s energy and attitude levels. Hambly said senior leader Jocelynn Birks will have to take charge and get her team invested emotionally.

“Jocelynn is a person we look to. She’s starting to understand how to influence others and push others to have that investment, which is exciting,” Hambly said. “This will be a good test to see if she actually has it, because it’s a lot easier at home than it is on the road.”

Northwestern is not one of the eight nationally ranked Big Ten teams, but the Wildcats should not and will not be taken lightly. Led by setter Taylor Tashima and outside hitter Symone Abbott, Northwestern took down No. 3 Penn State on Oct. 10 in a five-set, grind-it-out win. Most recently, the ‘Cats beat Michigan State 3-1 on Halloween.

Hambly pinpointed Northwestern’s abilities to defend, prolong rallies and use the middle effectively. He said Abbott will be the decisive factor in Wednesday’s match.

“That was the difference in the (previous) matches at their place,” Hambly said. “We didn’t handle Abbott. If we can handle her, we’ll be okay. But if we can’t we’re in for a long night.”

Illinois has the weapons to potentially counteract Abbott’s fierce attack. Junior Naya Crittenden and freshman Ali Bastianelli have formed a solid connection as of late, and they’ll look to block Northwestern at every opportunity.

Offensively, the Illini have been using their middle blockers more and more. According to Hambly, setter Alexis Viliunas is still adjusting to a new style of play in which points come from the middle of the floor.

“It has not been Lex’s comfort level, and she has not been used to having middles who can score like this,” Hambly said. “She’s gotta get out of her old habits and start to figure this out a little more.”

Following Wednesday’s match, Illinois is set to return to Champaign and face Northwestern again Saturday — this time at Huff Hall.

After a bit of a mid-season slump, the Illini have won three of their past four matches. Illinois beat Michigan State and Michigan back-to-back over the weekend. Hambly said the team doesn’t get too low during the lows or too high during the highs over the course of a season.

“They have perspective. They’re not making any of it bigger than it was than when we lost. This is what it is,” Hambly said. “We understand what’s ahead of us. And it doesn’t mean that much, unless we keep winning.

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