Illinois volleyball gains experience, confidence from split weekend

The Illinois volleyball team learned a lot this weekend.

The Illini are 6-8 (2-2 Big Ten) after dropping their first match of the weekend Friday against No. 9 Michigan State in straight sets before regaining momentum Saturday with a five-set win over No. 14 Michigan. In both matches, though, Illinois felt it gained valuable information to use as the season progresses.

“I think we definitely came out (Friday) and didn’t play our best,” freshman defensive specialist McKenna Kelsay said. “We learned what it took to fight for points, but we just didn’t execute the way we wanted to. (Saturday) we came out, and we fought, and we executed really well. We were down 2-1, we came back, and we believed in ourselves and we won. Overall, I think we played well and we learned a lot of things that we can use in future matches.”

Illinois was taken out of its match plan early by Michigan State’s up-tempo offense and never had a chance to get settled. The Spartans (15-1, 4-0 Big Ten) swept the Illini, taking the first set 25-15 before winning the next two sets 25-18 and 25-17, respectively. Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly praised Michigan State for its skill and said the team deserves its ranking.

“They passed really well and they blocked well and they served tough,” Hambly said. “They’re good, that’s the toughest thing about them is that they’re good. They’re a top-10 team for a reason, they belong there.”

Kelsay played well in her first real action as an Illini on Friday. She finished the night with 14 assists, an ace and a block.

“It was awesome,” Kelsay said. “I went in and just tried to do my best and tried to get the team fired up like I needed to. It was really cool.”

After a tough loss to start the weekend, Illinois bounced back Saturday with what most would call an upset win over Michigan (11-4, 1-3 Big Ten). The Illini were eventually able to combat the Wolverines slide hitters and took the match in five sets. Illinois 25-10. The Illini finally put the game away with 25-20 and 15-13 wins in the fourth and fifth sets.

“They had some good slide hitters and their tempo was good, but their slide hitters really gave us trouble,” Hambly said. “They’re always a tough serving team, so it was good to see us stand up and do a nice job against that.”

A strong point for the Illini as the weekend progressed was their serve-receive battle, which Hambly said was as good against Michigan as its been all season for Illinois.

Hambly also said he felt the team progressed in a number of areas throughout the weekend.

“In both matches we fought hard,” Hambly said. “We just didn’t play well (Friday), we didn’t execute at a high level. We still have work to do execution-wise, but I’m really proud of the way we’re competing. They found a way to win (Saturday), which is the biggest thing because that’s something the team needs to learn how to do.”

Kelsay said the biggest change between games on the weekend was the Illini becoming more accustomed to their place on the team.

“I think we just played the roles that we have,” Kelsay said. “Last night we were a little frantic and just trying to do everything and kind of losing sight of what each individual had to do. Tonight we got a hold of that and everyone did exactly what they were supposed to do and what was on the game plan, and I think that made the difference.”

With an up-and-down weekend and a confidence-boosting win behind them, the Illini will be back in the gym this week working on execution, which Hambly said is extremely important to the team’s success moving forward.

“We’re just going to need to be good in the moment. We can execute things in practice, but we’re just not doing it in the match.”

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