Illinois volleyball set to close out nonconference play in North Carolina

While the Illinois volleyball team’s tough schedule has provided no easy victories, the squad will get a relative break this weekend in its final nonconference series when the squad travels to the East Coast on Saturday to take on Duke and North Carolina.

This will be the first weekend the Illini are not taking on multiple ranked teams. While both teams are bringing superior records to the table, neither one has faced the level of competition Illinois has. North Carolina, which is ranked No. 15 after beginning the season 9-0, has lost only three sets all year. The Tar Heels’ toughest opponent thus far has been No. 24 Ohio, which took two sets from North Carolina. The Tar Heels are one of 12 remaining unbeaten Division-I teams this season.

“Our focus right now this week is confidence,” sophomore defensive specialist Julia Conard said. “I think a lot of us are working on having confidence and knowing that we put the time in and are good enough and that we could do this and that. Each of us have that talent, so confidence is key right now.”

Sophomore outside hitter Jocelynn Birks said her team needs to manage its “fire and intensity” in order to avoid a breakdown similar to this past weekend, when the Illini dropped two of three to No. 6 Texas and No. 3 Washington.

“We learned a lot in both matches that didn’t go our way,” she said. “Even in the Arizona State match that did, we need to be more consistent with our play and our energy and everything.”

Duke has faced slightly tougher competition, but was unable to best either of the ranked teams it faced. At 7-2, Duke has beaten smaller programs but has been swept by No. 4 Florida and No. 9 Minnesota. The Illini will certainly be a highlight on each of their opponent’s nonconference slates.

Head coach Kevin Hambly said his squad will have to continue being stout defensively. Both of the Illini’s upcoming opponents rank in the top 10 in the country in kills per set, with Duke coming in fourth at 15.29 and North Carolina in tenth with 14.83.

Hambly also compared Duke’s offense to a “Chinese fire drill” when describing the team’s quickness offensively. He said the Blue Devils offense does have a method to it, but that it is “very different” than what the Illini have faced this season. Hambly said his team has to improve its play offensively in order to win.

Statistically, Illinois ranks dead last in the Big Ten in hitting percentage (.199) and kills per set (11.79). The team’s kills per set average also ranks No. 221 in the country.

Blake can be reached at [email protected]