No. 20 Illini to open Big Ten season at home

During the past couple weeks of practice, the Illinois volleyball team has been focusing on communication. But with the conference season looming, the Illini don’t need to tell each other just how good the Big Ten is.

“The Big Ten is an intense conference to be in, so I’m just expecting us to execute our game plan,” redshirt freshman Ali Stark said. “I know that the teams are only gonna get better from here.”

“Here” being Huff Hall, where the Illini will take on No. 12 Minnesota on Friday and face a 12-1 unranked Wisconsin team Sunday.

Last year, the Illini suffered a 3-0 home loss to Minnesota, which Illini head coach Kevin Hambly identified as their worst game of that season. Things are different this year, however, as both teams have reloaded and Minnesota has tabbed a new head coach, Hugh McCutcheon, whom casual volleyball fans may recognize as the head coach of the U.S. women’s national team that earned a silver medal at the London Olympics.

McCutcheon’s squad features a pair of juniors, middle blocker Tori Dixon and outside hitter Ashley Wittman, that were named to the preseason All-Big Ten team. Senior outside hitter Katherine Harms was the Big Ten’s Player of the Week two weeks ago.

Last week, it was Illinois redshirt freshman Jocelynn Birks taking both Player and Freshman of the Week honors. In fact, last weekend was Illinois’ first weekend of play without a loss, as it toppled Texas on the road — a feat which Minnesota has also accomplished in the preconference season — and beat Central Florida and Cincinnati to take the Texas Invitational title.

This weekend will be the Illini’s first time entering play with a winning record this season. This is due in part to a grueling preconference schedule — all four losses were to opponents who are currently ranked — and in part to the team’s inexperience.

Hambly said as the conference season comes, however, his team is starting to jell.

“We’re starting to figure out who we are. We’re toughening up,” Hambly said. “I think that preconference has done what we wanted it to do. We were tough in Texas. We also got healthier, we had Ali back.”

Stark, despite being an outside hitter, helps the Illini more in the passing game, putting setter Annie Luhrsen in good position to deliver a clean assist. She said though she may take upwards of 50 swings in a game attacking, she concentrates more on her passing because “that’s where the team needs me.”

Stark’s sprained ankle had inhibited her from getting in a rhythm, as she frequently had to leave the court. But now with Stark at full strength, the Illini are using a more consistent lineup, which has helped in pretty much every aspect of the game, including communication.

“When we talk the game, our level of play is so much better,” sophomore Anna Dorn said. “When we’re talking and everybody’s communicating with each other, we’re all on the same page, and our energy level goes up and our execution goes up.”

The Illini will need to maintain high levels of communication and execution all weekend if they want a 2-0 start to their conference season. After Minnesota, the Illini will play a 12-1 Badgers team that Hambly said has had “great” recruiting classes the past couple seasons, presenting a very balanced lineup. Though it is unranked, Wisconsin is expected to give the Illini a challenge and a complete effort.

“The crazy thing about this conference is that on any given day, a team can be head and shoulders better than any other team,” Dorn said. “You just have to approach it just knowing that they’re going out to beat you, so you just have to bring it.”

Eliot can be reached at [email protected] and @EliotTweet.