Illini on the prowl for win over Wildcats in midweek game

The last time Illinois and Northwestern met on the volleyball court, Illinois got swept 3-0. Based on that match, Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said he thought Northwestern was the best team his squad had played that year.

“They kicked our butt last year,” Hambly said. “We couldn’t do anything to stop them. We played good volleyball. I think we hit .255 (or) .260 and lost in three. That doesn’t happen very often. They were unstoppable.”

Much has changed this season for both volleyball squads, and the No. 1 Illini (19-0, 8-0 Big Ten) have put the past behind them when they travel to face the Wildcats (10-9, 1-7) on Wednesday.

The Illini are off to the second best start in school history, with three new starters in the lineup. The Wildcats, meanwhile, have struggled, especially in conference play. They are on a four-match losing streak.

Among those losses, Northwestern took No. 8 Penn State and No. 20 Michigan into five-sets, which speaks more to Hambly than Northwestern’s record.

“I watch them, and I don’t see a (1-7) team,” Hambly said. “They’re tough. They play really good volleyball. We got to bring it, especially at their place, because we’re going to get their best game.”

Hambly added that the Wildcats are a “very young team,” losing key components this season, especially their outside hitter, middle blocker and setter.

In particular, the Illini are going to watch for the arm of outside hitter Stephanie Holthus.

Though the Illini graduated the same positions (Laura DeBruler, Johannah Bangert, Hillary Haen), they’ve had freshmen “Liz McMahon”:, “Anna Dorn”: and junior “Annie Luhrsen”:

“They have a big righty, and outside; she’s really similar to Laura,” Luhrsen said of Northwestern’s Holthus. “They both have different qualities, but they’re both a little bit smaller and jump really well, and very feisty players.

“Northwestern is almost, I think, a rivalry match of any Big Ten team just cause we’re both in-state,” Luhrsen added. “I don’t know if we want to look at it as revenge (from last season). We know what they have, and how hard they’re going to come out against us. So I think it’s more of we’re going to have to be ready to fight just as much as they are.”

Illinois’ “last match”: was Saturday against “Michigan State”:, giving it Sunday off, then only two days of preparation, a change from the typical practice week.

Right after Tuesday’s practice, the Illini traveled straight to Evanston. For senior Michelle Bartsch, playing at Northwestern came earlier than what she was used to.

“It will be interesting, because I feel like every time we play them, it’s Thanksgiving break there, so there’s absolutely no one there,” Bartsch said. “We’ll get there the night before and we’ll be able to prepare a little bit.”