Illinois volleyball falls short of NCAA tournament

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Illinois volleyball falls short of NCAA tournament

Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly talks to his team between sets during the match against Arkansas on August 26. The Ilini won 3-0.

Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly talks to his team between sets during the match against Arkansas on August 26. The Ilini won 3-0.

Austin Yattoni

Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly talks to his team between sets during the match against Arkansas on August 26. The Ilini won 3-0.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly talks to his team between sets during the match against Arkansas on August 26. The Ilini won 3-0.

By James Boyd, Staff writer

For three consecutive seasons, the Illinois volleyball team not only qualified for the NCAA tournament, but advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.

Last season, the team was only .500 in conference but defeated Southern Illinois and Louisville before its national title hopes were crushed by Minnesota in straight sets. The loss also marked the end of Jocelynn Birk’s career — the Illini’s all-time kills leader.

Even with Birk’s departure, Illinois had high hopes for this season. Head coach Kevin Hambly joked about getting rid of the No. 16 because his team had suffered enough in the Sweet Sixteen, but it was clear that he wanted his team to take its next step.

The season would include a lot of ups and downs for the Illini and ultimately resulted in the team falling short of the NCAA tournament for just the second time in Hambly’s career.

In its first tournament of the season, Illinois went 2-1 and took home the Illini Classic Title. Senior Katie Stadick was named the most valuable player, and fellow senior Naya Crittenden and sophomore Jordyn Poulter were named to the all-tournament team.

“I felt really really good,” Crittenden said. “Not only for myself, but for the team as well. I thought things were going to be looking up for myself and the team. We all felt pretty good at that point.”

It looked as if the Illini were poised to have a strong start to the season, but that was not the case. In its next couple of matches, as a part of the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge, the team lost a pair of five-set thrillers against No. 9 Stanford and Colorado.

Things got even worse when Illinois took on Oregon in the Nike Invitational. The Illini posted a 0.063 hit percentage against the Ducks and were handed their first straight-sets loss of the season. The defeat was also a bit personal for Crittenden, who recorded just five kills on a -0.111 hit percentage.

“Going into it I didn’t really have like an opinion on it,” Crittenden said. “I think the mistake that I made was not using that fire (of playing my old team) to fuel me. I was trying so hard to not let anything bother me, then when I got into the game I didn’t have that same fire and intensity that I have with every other game or every other opponent.”

However, the loss seemed to wake the team up and for next few weeks, Illinois played arguably its best volleyball of the season. The team won seven consecutive matches, including its first Big Ten matchup against No. 10 Purdue. Crittenden amassed a team-high 15 kills, and freshman Jacqueline Quade posted 13 kills against the Boilermakers.

Quade’s strong play would continue throughout the early stages of the Big Ten schedule, helping Illinois off to a 7-2 start. But that success would not be sustained. After a straight-sets victory over Indiana, the team would hit its lowest point of the season.

The Illini went on a seven-game losing streak, putting their NCAA tournament bid in jeopardy. The streak started with a loss to Purdue and included four straight-sets losses. Illinois would finally get back into the win column with a home victory over Maryland.

Illinois would earn two more victories, including a 3-1 win over Ohio State on senior night, but ended the season with 1-3 loss to No. 15 Penn State. Crittenden said that despite her team’s struggles, she believed they would still make it into the postseason.

But when the team held its annual viewing party to see if it would continue playing, Illinois’ name never popped up on the screen.

“We were tied with Ohio State, we were tied with Iowa, we were tied with Purdue,” Crittenden said. “We thought we were going to be okay. The Penn State loss is really what affected us in the end. If we would’ve got that (win), we could have been in over Purdue.”

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