Illinois looks to start conference schedule off right

For the No. 24 Illinois volleyball team, this weekend will be different.

Not only will the Illini play at State Farm Center, the team’s first home game outside of Huff Hall in four years, but they will also shift from their preconference schedule into more difficult conference games.

With eight schools in the top 25 including Illinois, the Illini will have their hands full this year in the Big Ten. Illinois will begin action Friday at 7 p.m. in State Farm Center with a match against Iowa before playing No. 12 Nebraska at 4 p.m. on Saturday.

“Every year there’s never really an obvious weak link or an obvious team that’s going to take the title,” senior defensive specialist Courtney Abrahamovich said. “There’s teams clawing and fighting for that title and every night you have to be on.”

The Illini will start the weekend against the Hawkeyes, a team that is coming off wins in three of its last four matches. Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said Iowa is an extremely well-rounded team.

“They’re balanced,” Hambly said. “They always compete really hard and they play great defense. They dig a lot of balls and they create a lot of swings.”

Illinois will continue its weekend against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers are coming off a five-set contest against No. 5 Texas in which Nebraska almost beat last year’s national champions at home. Illinois also played Texas to five sets, but Hambly believes the Cornhuskers are currently playing at a higher level than the Illini.

“They’re really athletic and they have swag,” Hambly said. “They come in expecting to win everywhere they go and they’re playing really good volleyball. They’re playing better volleyball than us right now, we’re going to have to step up our game.”

Aside from the change in competition with the start of Big Ten play, Illinois will also be dealing with another difference this weekend: playing in a new venue. The Illini will play the Hawkeyes at State Farm Center as a practice run before Illinois possibly hosts regionals in a few months.

Despite the size of State Farm Center, Abrahamovich feels the fans are still a big part of the action. She added that support from Illini fans on Friday may help bridge the gap between Huff and State Farm Center.

Illinois has struggled to score points at times this season. To counter the slight drop in points, junior Morganne Criswell said the Illini have been working on “creating swings” this week in practice in order to make offensive opportunities out of every possession.

“Whenever the setter takes the first ball, we’re working on having good hands so we can get a swing or create offense off a hit,” Criswell said.

When the Illini take the court against the Hawkeyes, they will be looking to stop a four-game losing streak dating back two weeks. In order to turn the streak around, Criswell said the team will rely on its preparation.

“The work we’ve put in is what’s going to get us our wins,” Criswell said. “We’ve put in the time, we’ve put in the effort and I think building off of that will help keep our confidence up.”

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and @IlliniSportsGuy.