Illini look to win first set, match in 15 tries at Penn State

The Illinois volleyball team drew one of its biggest crowds ever last Saturday. But this weekend, the tables will be turned.

The No. 1 Illini (15-0, 4-0 Big Ten) will hit the road for a pair of Big Ten matches, with No. 25 Ohio State on Friday and No. 8 Penn State on Saturday, and they’re not expecting a warm welcoming.

“I remember last year it was a tough weekend for us,” senior Colleen Ward said of taking the same road trip last season. “They both came out ready to play right away. It’s just so much harder when you’re in a different gym and you don’t have all the fans that you have here. It’s a different atmosphere, but it’s just as much fun to play in.”

Penn State has won the NCAA title the last four years and the Big Ten title the last eight years.Especially on their home court, the Nittany Lions have a reputation of being a different, better team. They carry a 67-match home winning streak against Big Ten opponents.

Illinois has struggled at Penn State, having lost the last 15 matches 3-0 in University Park, Pa.

“Everyone is good on their home court,” head coach Kevin Hambly said of Penn State. “They do a great job in protecting it. … They play with a different kind of energy, a different fight.

“We’re a confident team right now,” Hambly added. “We can find a way to win, and I think we’ve won it on a ton of different styles of play. We’ve won in five (sets), we’ve won in three, we’ve dominated, we’ve struggled. In all of it, we figured out a way to win.”

Last year, Illinois split with Penn State (10-4, 4-1), winning at Huff Hall before a sellout crowd.

That victory ended Penn State’s 65-match Big Ten winning streak.

The Illini may hold the No. 1 ranking, but Hambly doesn’t want his team to play with that in mind.

“We tried to play like we’re the No. 1 team in the country instead of trying to be us (against Indiana),” Hambly said.“The biggest key is to play Illinois volleyball, which is to play great defense, serve tough, pass well, extend rallies and grind it out a little bit. That’s been Illinois volleyball and that’s what we need to do against these teams is try to be us.”

The Illini won both matches against Ohio State (12-5, 2-2) last season, but that doesn’t mean much to them, especially since the Big Ten consists of seven teams in the top 25.

“Ohio State and Penn State are really, really good teams; I don’t think that’s a secret to anyone,” sophomore Jazmine Orozco said.

“We’re a different team than last year, like how we handle games on the road. I think it was a great start to our season to go to Minnesota and Wisconsin, and to go 2-0 in the weekend, but every weekend in the Big Ten is going to be tough.”