Volleyball starts 1-2 in Dayton tournament

Well, it’s definitely a new season.

There will be no 20-0 start for Illinois volleyball this year, and a rise to the top of the rankings can be removed from the to-do list, at least for now.

The Illini dropped their first six sets of the 2012 season, good for two losses, courtesy of Dayton on Friday and No. 11 Pepperdine in their first Saturday contest. Illinois bounced back in the second game Saturday to top Ohio 3-1, but after a 1-2 weekend to start its season, the national championship Illinois was two sets from winning couldn’t seem further away.

Heading into the tournament, the team knew it was facing a feeling-out process, with a roster featuring several key players whose weekend in Dayton served as their first collegiate volleyball experience. Despite the lack of experience, its No. 7 ranking was good to make Illinois the tournament favorite. But very few things went in Illinois’ favor once the games began.

“There was nothing that we executed the way we want to,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “I thought we at least should have something that we execute well on, but we really struggled in every phase. Mostly because I think we were nervous and we played really tight.”

Dayton was able to avenge a five-set Illini victory from 2011 in which the Flyers held a 2-0 set advantage before the Illini came back to win a thriller at Huff Hall. The Illini struggled on the attack in Friday’s match, committing 14 attack errors to Dayton’s seven and being outblocked 9-2.

“This is a buzz saw we came into tonight,” Hambly said in a postgame press release. “They were ready for us.”

Former Illini Jazmine Orozco and No. 11 Pepperdine also shut out Illinois, despite having fewer team blocks and more attack errors. Pepperdine had 48 kills to Illinois’ 33. Orozco hit .450, had 11 kills and tied for the team lead with 10 digs.

Redshirt freshman Jocelynn Birks was a bright spot for Illinois. She led the team with 44 kills on the weekend, including a debut in which she had 16 kills on .452 hitting. Despite losing her first two college matches, Birks was just happy to get the chance to play.

“It didn’t really turn out as we would have wanted, but it was still really fun and I’m glad I got to experience playing and actually putting the jersey on,” Birks said. “I was nervous, of course. I had a lot of emotion, but in the end, I’m really excited still, even after we’re done playing.”

Despite Hambly’s high expectations, the team was not discouraged after the disappointing weekend.

“Yeah, we lost, but we’re gonna take as much positive from it as we can, though, as far as learning what it takes, what we did wrong — so we can start focusing on those things,” sophomore Liz McMahon said.

McMahon had 14 kills in Saturday’s finale to help push Illinois over the top and into the wins column.

McMahon said the team was able to identify its weaknesses — taking plays off and toughness — to work on in practice. Although both of those are likely a product of a more organic flaw: inexperience.

“Every year, it takes time to get the team going the direction you want it to,” Hambly said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us, as we do every year. And this year we just don’t have quite as much experience, so it’s gonna take a little bit longer to figure some things out.”

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