Wild streak continues: Illinois slams Northwestern in 3 sets

EVANSTON, Ill. — Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena felt much like Huff Hall on Wednesday night.

On a rare midweek match, the No. 1 Illinois volleyball team traveled to Evanston to take on Northwestern, bringing a handful of fans with them.

“A lot of our players’ family and friends are from around here, and I know there are a lot of people we don’t know who were here,” senior Colleen Ward said.

Ward paced the Illini offensively. In just three quick sets, the outside hitter posted 20 kills and 20 digs, and the Illini swept the Wildcats, 25-19, 25-23, 25-19.

Along with Ward, senior Michelle Bartsch and Johnson posted eight kills apiece, while redshirt freshman Anna Dorn added six.

Despite Ward’s double-digit night, head coach Kevin Hambly said Wednesday’s result was produced by a team effort.

“Ward carried the load offensively, but I thought we did a good job blocking and playing defense,” Hambly said. “Anna was all over the place on the block. (Junior Erin Johnson) was good offensively. … We’re a system-oriented team.”

Stephanie Holthus proved to be Northwestern’s biggest offensive threat, posting 17 kills.

But the Illini held her to a .183 hitting percentage, which Dorn said is what they prepared to do.

“She’s a very smart player,” Dorn said of Holthus. “She’s definitely the emotional leader of the team.

“I think when we started blocking her or digging, not allowing her to get any points, the whole team doesn’t know what to do.”

Dorn led the Illini in hitting percentage at .556.

She, along with fellow middle blocker Johnson, combined for nine block assists that helped contain the arm of Holthus.

“I thought our middles actually did a great job,” Ward said.

“It was harder for (Northwestern) to come in and close on our block, so it was just easier for the outsides to get the ball in and find open spots.”

The Wildcats (10-10, 1-8 Big Ten) kept each set tight with the Illini, especially in the second, when they tied the set at 23. But the Illinois middles forced Holthus to commit two attack errors to eventually give Illinois (20-0, 9-0) the win.

The Illini sometimes had the tendency to slip in the third set in earlier matches, but Hambly said his squad stayed focused Wednesday while entering each set and during each play.

“They just seemed calm,” Hambly said. “This team has been through some things. They’ve played through some matches. No matter what the score, they’re going to stay calm and be steady.

“I’d like to see us push for some more, to fight for some points.”

In the last two sets, Illinois picked up its blocking, totaling 10.5 team blocks on the night.

It held a 70-55 advantage over Northwestern in digs. Four Illini recorded double-digit digs on the night.

Illinois hit .195 for the night, but held Northwestern to .092 hitting percentage and handed the Wildcats their fifth straight loss.

“I thought it was definitely a battle,” Ward said. “That was definitely something we wanted to focus on, was our defense. That’s the kind of team we want to be known for, is defensive minded.

“I thought we did a lot better at that tonight than we did in the past.”