Illini volleyball climbs to No. 6 in nation

The Illinois volleyball team is in good shape halfway through a tough conference schedule.

On Saturday at Iowa, the Illini concluded the first half of their Big Ten season with a three-set sweep, running their winning streak to seven matches and setting the stage for their appearance at No. 6 in the newly released national rankings.

“I have no idea what this streak is, I don’t really care actually,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “I think every match we need to just try to do the best we possibly can.”

Illinois is second in the Big at 8-2 and is 16-3 overall. Last year, the Illini were 7-3 in the first half of conference play and 8-2 in the second half. The Illini have not won 15 Big Ten matches in consecutive seasons since 1987 and 1988.

“We are tied for second in the Big Ten now, and, being behind Penn State, we’re looking more at December,” Hambly said. “There’s things we could still do a lot better, like we could be a little bit smoother on offense. Our block and defense has been really good, but our offense could get some better swings and just have better rhythm this weekend.”

The Illini are near the top of the national standings in several categories, as junior Johannah Bangert leads in blocks, averaging 1.67 per set. Junior Laura DeBruler is 10th in kills, posting 4.52 per set, and junior Hillary Haen is 12th in assists with 11.55 per set.

“We’re OK with how we’re doing right now, but we are just all really hard workers,” DeBruler said. “We want to keep pushing the envelope as far we possibly can.”

Bangert wins Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week

For the third week in a row, an Illini player won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week.

Bangert had 22 total blocks last weekend to nab her second award this season, leading the Illini defense to pair victories at Wisconsin and Iowa.

The defense held the Badgers and Hawkeyes to a combined .043 hitting average. On Friday against Wisconsin, Bangert posted one solo block and 13 block-assists.

She tied the school’s block-assist record for the second time this season.

“Bangert’s performance this weekend … is just pretty incredible,” Hambly said.

Against the Hawkeyes, Bangert had eight blocks, and Illinois held Iowa to its lowest hitting percentage of the season. This is the fourth time in her career that Bangert has earned the weekly accolades.

Johnson, Illini find roles

With the homestretch looming, the Illini have adjusted to their roles within the team and are finding their rhythm, as shown by the seven-match winning streak.

“As a team we are doing a good job and everybody’s playing their role and understanding that what they need to win is a good team effort,” Hambly said.

One Illini who is getting more comfortable in her role is freshman blocker Erin Johnson, who played well over the weekend, recording one solo block and six block-assists against Iowa and five kills and five block-assists against Wisconsin.

Hambly said Johnson is really starting to hit her stride and that it is really difficult to be a good blocker as a freshman.

He added that he expects a lot more out of Johnson in the remainder of the season.

“We are just at a really good spot right now of where we need to be,” Bangert said.