Young Illinois volleyball team continues to struggle

Saturday’s loss to Iowa State served as another reminder that this is not the same Illinois volleyball team from a season ago.

With the defeat, the Illini dropped to 2-3, albeit all three losses were against ranked teams. Still, it’s a far cry from last year’s 20-0 start and No. 1 ranking.

The loss came in Illinois’ first five-set match of the season. The Illini came unglued during a 7-1 Iowa State run midway through the fifth set that put the match out of reach. It was Illinois’ first loss in a five-set match in over a year, as the 2011 squad posted a 7-0 record in five-set matchese during its run to the NCAA championship game.

Entering Saturday’s match, Iowa State had already played two matches that went the distance, falling to No. 16 Tennessee and No. 6 Florida State. Illinois setter Annie Luhrsen said experience played a factor in the deciding set Saturday night.

“It’s always good to have experience in a five-set match,” the senior said. “You know what you’re going into and we’ve all played in five-set matches before, but not as a cohesive group. That shouldn’t have been a factor … but it probably was.”

Sophomores Dorn, McMahon provide Illini with a boost

Despite the loss, the Illini have some positives to take away from the weekend in the play of redshirt sophomore Anna Dorn and sophomore Liz McMahon.

Dorn posted 10 kills, a .421 hitting percentage and eight blocks in Saturday’s loss. After the game, Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly praised Dorn as the most consistent player so far this season.

“She’s been good every game, blocking well and attacking well,” Hambly said. “Dorn’s developing into what Dorn should be. She’s gonna be a great middle blocker, now and in the future.”

Assisting Dorn on many of her blocks was McMahon, who continued to improve her play. The 6-foot-6 right side hitter struggled out of the gate this season under increased expectations to help replace the lost production of All-Americans Michelle Bartsch and Colleen Ward.“I took some pressure off of her to be spectacular,” Hambly said of McMahon’s improvements.

She responded with 27 kills and a .339 hitting percentage during the weekend. Near the end of the must-win fourth set Saturday, McMahon came up huge for Illinois, recording the team’s final three kills as the Illini held on to force a fifth set.

Illini continue to lose ground in polls

Illinois fell one spot to No. 20 in the coach’s poll released Monday. The Illini have dropped 13 spots from their No. 7 preseason ranking.

The Illini are one of six Big Ten teams in the top 25. Nebraska (5-0) held onto its No. 1 ranking by defeating UC Irvine on Saturday, while Penn State (5-0) jumped two spots to No. 2 after defeating No. 4 Texas and No. 8 Stanford. Minnesota, now led by U.S. women’s volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, stayed undefeated and moved up to No. 14. Purdue and Michigan fell to No. 11 and No. 23, respectively.

Daniel can be reached at [email protected] and @danielmillermc.