Embattled Illini volleyball heads to Michigan for two conference matchups

One step forward and two steps back.

The catchphrase characterized Illinois volleyball’s play last weekend when the team was swept and overmatched in the final two sets against Nebraska, just a day after a dominating sweep against Iowa.

This weekend, things won’t be getting easier for the Illini (5-7) when they travel north to face two top-15 teams in No. 9 Michigan State (13-1) and rival No. 14 Michigan (10-3). With a schedule that seems to get progressively more difficult, the Illini are beginning to feel a sense of urgency as the midway point of the season approaches.

“I think we need some wins to get some confidence,” head coach Kevin Hambly said after the loss to Nebraska. “That’s the biggest thing. … We got Michigan and Michigan State coming up and we need to get these. We need to get the first one and see if we can build on that.”

Freshman defensive specialist Danielle Davis remains as confident as ever despite the rocky start to Illinois’ season.

“I see the team as winning the Big Ten,” she said. “I really do. We’re so good. We’re good at every position on the court, we don’t have a weakness at all. So I think that that’s very important, and I feel like once we get settled in and everything going, we’ll be one of the best teams for sure.”

Illinois can head into its matches with its head high, as it is historically dominant against both of the Michigan-based universities. The Illini are 45-24 against the Spartans and hold a 21-11 record in East Lansing, Mich.; however, the Spartans are coming off a weekend sweep of two of the top teams in the country and conference, beating No. 5 Penn State 3-2 and sweeping No. 12 Ohio State on the road.

Hambly compared Michigan State’s style of play to San Diego, in that the Spartans execute their offense at a frantic, up-tempo pace. San Diego gave the Illini trouble early in the season, handing them their second loss, 3-1.

Michigan also plays at a high tempo, but has been more physical this year, according to Hambly. Unlike Michigan State, Michigan could not steal a road victory from Ohio State and Penn State last weekend, losing both matches 3-1 and beginning conference play 0-2. The Wolverines are 5-0 at home, though, and matches in Ann Arbor are nearly split, with the Illini on top 16-14, but standing 43-21 overall. The Illini were also the team to give the Wolverines their final loss of the season last season prior to their defeat in the Final Four against Texas.

“We really just need to play our game,” Davis said when asked how to be successful this weekend. “We come to practice and kill it and play our game and when everybody’s on, I feel like we’re unstoppable. If we keep our energy up and our mental toughness up then we’ll definitely have a great shot at beating both teams this weekend.”

Blake can be reached at [email protected]