Illinois finds right mix during 3-0 sweep of Texas Invitational

The Illinois volleyball team finally resembled the unit that was expected following last season’s deep run in the NCAA tournament in its “performance last weekend at the Texas Invitational”:

With outside hitter Ali Stark hitting at the net for the first time since suffering a sprained ankle in the Illini’s season-opener three weeks ago, head coach Kevin Hambly was able to employ a more natural rotation. Hambly used both Stark and fellow outside hitter Jocelynn Birks in all six spots — something he had experimented with only sporadically since Stark’s injury.

Hambly said Birks’ play gave the Illini “continuity in passing” and an attacking threat out of the backcourt. The redshirt freshman “posted 60 kills”: to lead Illinois to three wins while also tallying double-digit digs in each game.

Stark posted her first career double-double in the Illini’s four-set victory over Cincinnati in the final game of the weekend.

More court time for Birks and Stark resulted in sophomore Morganne Criswell playing a reduced role off the bench. The outside hitter played in only one set over the weekend: the first set against Cincinnati.

Hambly expects to utilize a similar lineup entering Big Ten play but said nothing is set in stone and there is always a chance for bench players to make their way into the starting lineup.

*Bomb threat at Texas*

A bomb threat on the University of Texas’ Austin campus Friday morning put a scare into Texas students and faculty and briefly put the status of the Texas Invitational in doubt.

The threat was received at 8:35 a.m., and the university instructed students and faculty to evacuate via text messages at 9:48 a.m.

Illinois was in staying in an off-campus hotel and was relatively unaffected by the scare.

“We were pretty isolated from everything,” Hambly said. “We’re at our hotel just hanging out. I think the girls were completely oblivious. If I hadn’t announced it on the phone call when I talked to their coach, (the Illini) probably wouldn’t have even known what was going on.”

The threat was deemed harmless by early afternoon, and the tournament was held as scheduled.

*Illinois moves up in latest poll*

Illinois’ three victories in Austin put the brakes on a season-long slide in the AVCA coaches poll.

The Illini moved up three spots to No. 20, while one of their victims from the weekend, Texas, fell three spots to No. 9.

The Big Ten maintained a strong presence in the top 25 despite Nebraska losing its grasp on the No. 1 ranking after suffering its first loss of the season to No. 19 Iowa State. Two weekends ago, the Cyclones split two games with Illinois. The Cornhuskers slipped to No. 3, still one spot ahead of Penn State even though the Nittany Lions went 3-0 last weekend.

Minnesota, which is Illinois’ opponent next Friday, fell to No. 12 after dropping a five-set match to No. 11 Kansas State.Purdue came in at No. 17, Ohio State at No. 23 and Michigan State moved into the rankings at No. 25 to give the Big Ten seven teams in the top 25 — the most of any conference.

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