Illini volleyball set to renew rivalry with Penn State, Ohio State

It seems as if Penn State’s volleyball program is a perennial favorite to compete for the national championship. But that reputation doesn’t mean much when it plays in Huff Hall.

The Illini and the No. 4 Nittany Lions will renew their heated rivalry Friday for the first of two matches this season. Despite the Nittany Lions holding a large advantage in the all-time record books, winning 39 of 48 matches, the Illini have had success against them at Huff Hall in recent years. Illinois has won two of the past three matches at Huff Hall, with their only loss coming after holding a 14-10 fifth set lead and letting it get away last year.

“I think it would be great for confidence to beat Penn State,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “We need wins, so it’d be great to get a win in any one. … Beating Penn State is as important as beating anyone else, but maybe because it means more to everybody around, it could give us a little more confidence.”

As usual with Penn State, getting a win won’t be easy. The Nittany Lions are 14-2 on the season and 5-1 in the conference, winning their last five games in a row. Inconsistency has plagued the Illini so far this season, leaving the team with a 7-9 record overall and 3-3 in the Big Ten. Penn State has been great on both sides of the ball, leading the conference in hitting percentage at .314 and holding opponents to a conference-low .137 hitting percentage. This does not bode well for Illinois, who is ranked No. 11 of 12 in both of these categories.

“I think our serve-receive is really going to help us this weekend,” junior outside hitter Morganne Criswell said. “We can use everybody and really spread out our hitters. I think that’ll be big for us.”

No. 17 Ohio State will also be making its return to Huff Hall this weekend for the Illini’s annual breast cancer awareness game, the “Workout a Cure” match. For the match, the Illini will be wearing special edition pink jerseys that have already been auctioned off to raise awareness for the disease. The Illini and the Illini Networkers raised over $4,000 through auctions of the jerseys during the final weekend of September.

“It keeps growing, we keep raising more money,” Hambly said about the event. “It’s become something the girls get excited about. It’s become something the community gets behind. The fact we’re donating to a local charity this year, the Mills Breast Cancer Institute, I think it means more.”

Hambly went on to say Ohio State will be hard to game plan for as it presents a different style of play relative to Penn State. The Buckeyes play with a high tempo, run a variety of combinations and are able disrupt defensive sets. In previous weekends, Hambly said, specifically noting Michigan and Michigan State, the Illini would be playing teams with similar styles of play. That’s not the case this time around.

Illinois and Ohio State have been fairly even in terms of their all-time series record, with the Buckeyes narrowly edging out the Illini 38 games to 36. The Buckeyes have struggled thus far against conference opponents, going 2-4 and losing their past two matches. The Buckeyes do roster the most formidable hitter in the conference in Kaitlyn Leary, who leads the conference with 335 kills and a 4.93 kills per set average, which also ranks fourth in the nation.

“This year we’re hoping we can get (Ohio State) out of system a little bit more than we did last year,” Hambly said. “I think we’re better defending than we have in the past, so I hope we can be better defending the outside as well. (Leary) can definitely get on runs. She’s a special outside hitter, a special point scorer, especially.”

Blake can be reached at [email protected]