Illini volleyball splits weekend in Iowa

Prior to its first home series of the season, the Illinois volleyball team continued its grueling schedule with a trip to Ames, Iowa, for the Iowa State Challenge to face its toughest competition of the year thus far.

The Illini opened up the tournament slowly, losing 3-1 Saturday to No. 14 San Diego, a team head coach Kevin Hambly said would be the most difficult matchup for Illinois yet. Fortunately for the Illini, the squad bounced back strong Sunday with a 3-0 sweep of No. 11 Iowa State, which put the No. 18-ranked Illini at 3-2 for the season. The win also marked the third against a ranked opponent this season.

In the opener against San Diego, Illinois kept every set within five points and outblocked the Toreros 15-6. But even with a second-set win at 27-25, the Illini could not crack a stout and tough defense.

“(San Diego) is a tough team to play at this time of the year,” Hambly said. “They play a totally different style. They’re really fast, and they handle the ball well.

“We needed to execute our game plan that was outside of how we normally want to play, and we didn’t. We just didn’t execute.”

The Illini really showed their mettle in the following match against Iowa State. After another slow start to the opening set, which had the Cyclones leading 20-17, Illinois fought back to take the set 25-23 and never looked back.

On their way to season highs in hitting percentage (.303) and service aces (eight), the Illini dominated the next two sets, winning 25-19 and 25-16 to come out of the tournament above .500 for the season.

“We knew we needed to be more prepared (against Iowa State),” sophomore outside hitter Jocelynn Birks said. “And really focused on getting that next win out of us, that’s what we did.”

Hambly said his team is still learning a lot about itself during this difficult road series. He said the team is learning just about everything there is to learn, rattling off a long list of key aspects of the game, from simply learning how to prepare for a match, to in-game communication, to leadership roles.

Birks echoed a similar sentiment.

“I think we learned how to play as a team,” Birks said. “How to stick together, even if we’re not playing our best, just sticking together and finding a way to win, and I think that’s something we’re still figuring out how to do, but we’re getting better at it.”

Blake can be reached at [email protected]