Second half of conference play gives volleyball a 2nd chance at same teams

The first half of the Big Ten season ended on a low note for the Illinois volleyball team.

Its undefeated record was marred last Saturday by Nebraska, which stripped the No. 1 national ranking as well as the top seed in the conference from Illinois.

The Illini (20-1, 9-1 Big Ten) begin part two this weekend with Wisconsin on Friday and No. 15 Minnesota on Saturday at Huff Hall.

After recording their first loss of the season, the Illini took advantage of some time off to take a step back and learn from the experience.

“We’ve been working really hard and grinding with our heads down,” junior Annie Luhrsen said. “(Monday) we got off, which is a rarity, and I think that gave us all a chance to pick our heads up, look at the big picture and see where we’re at.

“I think everyone is pretty confident that we just need to be working really hard, moving forward and keep growing as a group and individually,” Luhrsen added.

Illinois has played most teams in the conference once and will see most of the same teams again.

It faced Wisconsin (13-9, 5-5) and Minnesota (12-7, 5-5) back in September, winning 3-0 and 3-2, respectively.

Head coach Kevin Hambly said the differences the second time around are that teams have more information about each other and change as the season advances.

Unfortunately for the Badgers, that change is an injury to freshman outside hitter Crystal Graff, who led the team with 2.63 kills per set. Wisconsin enters Friday’s match fresh off a 3-1 win against Indiana.

“They’re gong to set the ball as fast as they can to the pin and challenge our block on defense,” Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said. “I think we did a really good job of serving against them and took some things away. If we don’t do that then we will have our hands full for sure.”

Minnesota challenged Illinois in five sets in its previous match, and Luhrsen said the key will be for her team to stay in its system and start strong.

“In the beginning of the season, even throughout this first half of the Big Ten and everything, we started off really strong and let up,” Luhrsen said. “Some matches, we started off not as strong, but came out stronger toward the end. … Now, we’re trying to string those two together.”

Illinois’ blocking was potent against Minnesota, holding the Gophers to a negative hitting percentage.

Senior Colleen Ward posted 16 kills in that match and isn’t expecting anything less from the Gophers.

“Every team improves throughout the year, even the better team that we saw in the beginning of the Big Ten,” Ward said. “We’re definitely bringing consistent effort and energy, not really letting down as much as we have in the past, ‘cause (Minnesota is) a team that can definitely get on you and stay on you.”