Illinois looks for upset at Penn State

Ashley Fleming (12) celebrates with the Illini Volleyball team after scoring a point at Huff Hall vs. Indiana on Oct. 12.

Jonathan Bonaguro

Ashley Fleming (12) celebrates with the Illini Volleyball team after scoring a point at Huff Hall vs. Indiana on Oct. 12.

By Gaby Hajduk, Staff Writer

Losses against No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 7 Minnesota last weekend dropped the Illinois volleyball team to a 9-8 overall record and 4-4 in the Big Ten. Nearing the halfway point of the conference season, Illinois looks to upset Penn State on the road Wednesday night.

Keys to the upset 

Sitting at No. 17 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Coaches Poll for the second week in a row, Illinois will need a collective effort to upset No. 8 Penn State.

The Illini will have to be strong at the net Wednesday, as the Nittany Lions have the 14th best hitting percentage among all National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I teams, averaging a .278 clip. Illinois’ .231 percentage does not crack the top 75 teams.

Middle blockers Ashlyn Fleming and Kennedy Collins will be working against sophomore Jonni Parker, former Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Parker leads Penn State this season with 204 kills on a .269 hitting percentage.

On the Illini attack, senior Jacqueline Quade and junior Megan Cooney will need to minimize any miscommunication with setter Diana Brown. Illinois had a combined 62 attack errors last weekend, limiting its offensive flow. Penn State’s middle blocker, Kaitlyn Hord, ranks 33rd among the NCAA in blocks-per-set with 1.31.

While Illinois made comebacks in both matches over the weekend, the team dropped the first set in both by a combined 22 points. The Illini will need to take the early advantage against the Nittany Lions by communicating effectively and keeping an aggressive game plan.

Illini leaders

Quade has continued to lead Illinois’ offense from the outside with 303 kills, tied for 31st in the country according to the NCAA. The senior hitter has played all 70 sets for Illinois, averaging 4.3 kills per set.

While Quade continues to be Brown’s go-to hitter, Cooney is proving her ability on the left side, after making the transition from opposite to outside hitter this season. The junior is second on the team with 213 kills.

Head coach Chris Tamas teaches his team to serve aggressively, and while the Illini have made 182 service errors, they’ve recorded 101 aces. Quade and sophomore Taylor Kuper lead Illinois with 23 aces each.

Junior Morgan O’Brien and Brown have been leading the defensive front for Illinois with 199 and 180 digs, respectively. O’Brien has been efficient at libero this season, recording only three receiving errors.

Up next 

After closing out their one-match road trip at Penn State, Illinois will return to Huff Hall for three conference matches. Ohio State will head to Champaign this Saturday, while Michigan will come to town on Nov. 1, followed by Michigan State on Nov. 2.

While all three Big Ten teams are unranked, Michigan received votes in this week’s AVCA rankings. The Wolverines will most likely be the Illini’s toughest matchup during the stretch, with a current overall record of 13-5 and 6-2 in conference play.

Michigan’s conference losses come from No. 5 Nebraska and No. 8 Penn State. The Wolverines will face tougher competition before playing the Illini, facing the Minnesota Gophers and Wisconsin Badgers this weekend.

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