Illini volleyball taking advantage of road matches

Two thousand and seventeen miles.

That’s the distance the Illinois volleyball team traveled last weekend for the Long Beach State Mizuno Invitational. This weekend the team will be much closer to home when it makes a 377-mile trip to Ames, Iowa, for the Iowa State Challenge. After winning two of three against two ranked opponents in Florida State and Kentucky, the Illini’s jobs won’t get any easier, as they are scheduled to face No. 14 San Diego and host No. 11 Iowa State in their second consecutive road trip.

“I think the one nice thing about being on the road is that there’s a lot less distractions,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “It’s nice to have recruits, it’s nice to have family, it’s nice to have fans here, but being on the road, we’re kind of in our own little world. There’s no school or anything; we just get to work on volleyball. I kind of like being on the road at this time.”

For outside hitter Ali Stark, an Iowa native, the tournament will be a homecoming of sorts to her. The sophomore said she expects family members to make the trip from their home in Mount Vernon to Ames.

“It’ll be nice to be back in Iowa, playing Iowa State,” she said. “They’re a great team for sure, and it will be exciting.

“I’m really excited to have my family there cheering, especially more of them than what normally makes the game. It’ll be good just to be back home and kind of get in the swing of things.”

Stark said she has familiarity with some of the Cyclones players, but her focus is on the team’s defensive mind set. She said the team has been working on emulating its strong overall defense, which led it to a win against Kentucky.

Team defense will be necessary in the Illini’s first test against San Diego, which Hambly described as having an “up-tempo offense.” The Toreros’ senior middle hitter Katie Hoekman, who was named the West Coast Conference Player of the Week last week, is coming into the match with 45 kills and a .470 hitting percentage. San Diego finished last weekend 2-1 after beating UTEP and then-No. 9 Hawaii but losing to then-No. 1 Texas.

Iowa State is going into this weekend unscathed, as the Cyclones wrapped up the weekend 3-0 and losing only one set in the University of North Dakota Classic, where they faced South Dakota State, North Dakota, and Texas A&M, all unranked.

“(Iowa State) has very experienced, very skilled, very physical players,” Hambly said. “They’re a legitimate contender to make a run very deep in the tournament. With that, they bring physicality and some skill that will be very tough to prepare for.”

Hambly also said the team must keep its attitude going into this weekend.

“I feel like we made a little bit of a paradigm shift from effort to determination,” he said. “We need to take that away with us to the weekend and that needs to become the natural thing for us — when we play, we’re determined to make plays and make things happen.”

Blake can be reached at [email protected]