Illinois volleyball loses two of three in first home weekend

For the first time in the annual “Stuff Huff” match’s eight-year history, the Illinois volleyball team failed to notch a win.

Although the Illini managed to beat Arizona State in their first home game of the season Friday morning in five sets, the team went on to lose its subsequent matches against No. 6 Washington and No. 2 Texas.

“It was a tough tournament,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “We knew it would be tough. I’m disappointed we didn’t get one more (win). I thought going into this weekend we can be 2-1, and that’s tough not to get one.”

In Illinois’ first match against Arizona State, the Illini dropped the first set 25-22 but took the next two by scores of 25-23 and 25-17. The Sun Devils bounced back big in the fourth set, winning 25-18 before losing a close fifth set 17-15.

The win marked No. 100 for Hambly’s career since taking over as head coach in 2009. He holds a .727 winning percentage in more than five seasons.

“I’m honored to be the coach at Illinois,” he said. “However many wins and losses I have doesn’t really have much to do with it. I’m lucky to have coached some great kids. I’m not a guy that keeps track of stuff like that … If you want to talk about how Jennifer Beltran has developed over the last four years, I find that much more rewarding than wins or losses.”

In front of a crowd of 3,538 for the “Stuff Huff” game, the No. 14 Illini lost to the Huskies in four sets, splitting the first two 25-21 and 25-22, but then falling apart in the final two, 25-19 and 25-13. Jocelynn Birks and Liz McMahon combined for 26 kills in the match, but Illinois could not stop Washington’s Krista Vansant, who led the match with 19 kills on an astounding .462 hitting percentage.

“Our passing at times didn’t necessarily help us and just the fact we weren’t always patient attacking and didn’t really rely on our defense as much as we could have,” outside hitter Ali Stark said. “We made a lot of mistakes that way.”

In the final match of the weekend, the Illini got their chance to redeem themselves against the defending national champion Texas Longhorns, which was swept by Arizona State in an earlier match at Huff Hall. In a back-and-forth match in which both teams traded sets, the Longhorns were able to squeak by the Illini in a highly contested fifth set, 15-11.

Hambly said he thought his squad’s defense fared well against Texas’ athletic front row of Haley Eckerman, Bailey Webster and Chiaka Ogbogu.

“(Texas is) going to have some freaks and I mean that in a good way,” Hambly said. “Eckerman was a great player; she’s a player-of-the-year candidate, and she showed it. She was special. Webster presented some challenges with her height and athleticism that you don’t see very often.

“It’s fun to play against a team like that because it’s a different kind of puzzle. I thought we put the pieces together at times and we couldn’t at other times, so it’s good preparation for the Big Ten because there are teams who have freaks.”

One positive the Illini can take from the weekend is the play of freshman middle blocker Maddie Mayers. Mayers stepped up her game against the Longhorns, hitting .323 on a career-high 15 kills to go with eight blocks.

“(Maddie) was our go-to attacker,” Hambly said. “She had a nice matchup where she was matched up on Amy Neil, No. 9, and we tried to exploit that and she did. We need that from her all the time.”

Blake can be reached at [email protected]