Illinois volleyball splits weekend with Iowa State

The Illinois volleyball team continued riding the emotional roller coaster last weekend.

The No. 20 Illini rolled through No. 18 Iowa State during Stuff Huff on Friday night, winning 25-16, 25-22, 25-16. Illinois earned its first straight-set victory of the season in front of the largest opening night crowd in school history; 3,770 fans were in attendance to watch the unveiling of the 2011 NCAA runner-up banner and the beginning of a new era.

The youth and inexperience of that new era showed as the two teams squared off again Saturday. The Illini came up short in their first five-set match of the season, losing 28-26, 19-25, 22-25, 25-23, 15-10.

Friday night was the high point of the weekend, as the crowd gave a huge ovation to last year’s seniors, Rachel Feldman, Hannah Deterding and Michelle Bartsch, when they pulled the cover off the 2011 banner. The resultant atmosphere and energy in Huff Hall buoyed Illinois to victory.

“It’s amazing playing at Huff,” sophomore Morganne Criswell said. “The amount of energy that comes from the crowd is indescribable when you’re on the court. It’s awesome.”

Criswell was part of a balanced Illini attack Friday, finishing with 10 kills and a .500 hitting percentage. Early in the first set, it appeared as if Illinois’ struggles from a week ago would continue as Iowa State jumped out to a 15-12 lead. But the Illini closed the set on a 13-1 run, winning nine straight points off the serve of redshirt freshman Jocelynn Birks.

“Halfway through that first set (the Cyclones) were scoring at a pretty high rate, and then our defense started to play Illinois style of defense where we’re blocking balls and creating deflections and getting a lot of swings,” Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said. “This looked much more like a team that I like to coach and a team that I like to be around because we’re defensive minded.”

From that point on it was all Illinois. A Criswell kill secured a tight second set and the Illini led wire-to-wire in the third set for the sweep.

“I think that we finally just figured out how to play effectively as a team,” sophomore middle blocker Anna Dorn said. “It takes some time with all the new players that we have on the court to kind of develop a little groove to go with.”

Helping Illinois find that groove was the return of Ali Stark to the starting lineup. Stark sprained her ankle during the Illini’s season opener and was a question mark all week. The answer was provided instantly Friday night as Stark stepped to the line for the first serve of the game, something Hambly had no qualms about.

“Ali’s a good volleyball player. She’s one of the better all-around volleyball players I’ve coached,” Hambly said. “I’m not saying she’s the best attacker or the best blocker, but she just can play the game.”

Hambly cited Stark’s passing as a key to the team’s improvements from a week ago. As a whole, the Illini passed significantly better, resulting in a .343 hitting percentage. Birks led the team with 13 kills and sophomore right side hitter Liz McMahon chipped in 11 of her own. The all-around performance left Illinois on a high note heading into Saturday’s match.

By Saturday night, however, the good feelings had evaporated after Iowa State used a 7-1 run in the fifth set to earn a weekend split.

Early in the match, it appeared Illinois would continue to dominate the Cyclones. The Illini jumped out to a 24-19 lead, but Iowa State managed to claw back to a 24-24 tie before Illinois setter Annie Luhrsen put away a kill to give Illinois the 28-26 win.

“The funny thing about volleyball is that momentum shift,” Hambly said. “The funny thing about momentum is that it doesn’t really exist, it’s just in your mind. And we’ve got some young minded kids right now that need to be tougher. They were affected by that push that they made and we need to be tough and understand that doesn’t really exist.“

Existing momentum or not, Iowa State continued playing at a high level and went on to take the next two sets with relative ease, although the Illini made a late push in the third. Illinois forced a fifth set with a 25-23 win in the fourth set but were unable to seal the deal.

“I think they just had more fight and they played a little bit more consistent all over,” Luhrsen said. “I think we’re still figuring a lot of stuff out and we’re figuring stuff out in the fifth game and we didn’t fight as hard as they did.”

Freshman Mackenzie Bigbee slammed the winning kill into the opposite corner to claim the victory for the Cyclones. It was a fitting end after Illinois was unable to control the southpaw outside hitter all game long. Bigbee finished with 25 kills and a .409 hitting percentage.

“She did everything,” Hambly said. “When kids are moving it around that much with that much range, she’s gonna be special.”

In addition to Bigbee’s dominance, the Illini made errors all night long that hurt their cause. The most glaring mistakes came on their serves, where Illinois made 13 errors, and in serve receive. Hambly shuffled the backline multiple times in an effort to find the answer, but ultimately nothing worked. For a young team early in the season, the experiences learned from games like this are plentiful.

“The list is ridiculous,” Hambly said after citing a few, including the team’s bench play. “I could go on and on.”

McMahon added that losing was another part of the learning process.

“We’re working on figuring out a new identity and what we’re gonna have to play like,” McMahon said. “Sometimes you really don’t realize what the seniors, or the team last year, what they had to carry on their backs.”

The young Illini are experiencing a baptism by fire in that field, and as such, ups and downs of the early season roller coaster are to be expected.

_Daniel can be reached at [email protected] and @danielmillermc_