Illini win at State Farm Center then fall to ‘Huskers

The stage couldn’t have been any bigger for the Illinois volleyball’s conference opener against Iowa.

In front of a crowd of 7,061 at State Farm Center, the second largest in school history, the Illini broke a four-match losing streak in a decisive 3-0 sweep of the Iowa, 25-19, 25-18, 25-21. Unfortunately for the Illini, they would be on the wrong end of a sweep the very next day in their return to Huff Hall, falling to No. 12 Nebraska 25-20, 25-14, 25-22.

“Overall, it was nice to get a win,” head coach Kevin Hambly said after Friday’s match. “The team was hurting for confidence after last weekend. It was nice to win and win in three, win decisively, where we didn’t feel like we were going to lose at the end of sets.”

The Illini utilized a strong serve game to take the Hawkeyes out of their rhythm and set up a balanced scoring attack. All six starters for Illinois had six or more kills, with junior outside hitter Liz McMahon leading the team with 12, followed by sophomore outside hitter Jocelynn Birks with nine. Juniors Anna Dorn and Morganne Criswell had eight and sophomore setter Alexis Viliunas had six on seven attempts for an .857 hitting percentage. The team also had eight aces, tying its season high.

“We were streaky passing, had a couple streaks where we didn’t pass great,” Hambly said. “But for the most part we passed really well, we got in system, we got our middles involved, and that really helped free stuff up.”

In a return to Huff Hall on Saturday, the Illini could not get anything going after a tightly contested first set that included nine lead changes. A strong service game by the Cornhuskers, which included six aces, took the Illini out of their element, stifling them offensively. The Illini were held to just a .144 hitting percentage as a team while the Cornhuskers hit .255, led by Kadie Rolfzen and Kelsey Robinson, who combined for 24 kills and a .288 hitting percentage. Top recruit Michelle Strizak made her debut in orange and blue and accumulated five kills.

“She knew she had to be ready tonight,” Hambly said. “She had been tearing us up in practice every day. It was time for her to help us.”

Freshman defensive specialist Danielle Davis, who had seen action in only one set prior to Saturday’s match, saw extended playing time in the final two sets of the match, registering six digs.

Hambly also hinted at further reliance on his freshman as the year goes on.

“We’ve got freshman making an impact before,” Hambly said. “Maddie (Mayers) is making an impact for us as a redshirt freshman. Strizak and Davis, I think they are going to have to make an impact for us. I saw some really good things out of Davis and Strizak tonight.”

Blake can be reached at [email protected]