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Illini Volleyball opens season with five road wins

The Illini are undefeated so far this season, with wins against three Top 25 opponents so far.

Andy Wenstrand; FightingIllini.com

Illinois Volleyball is on a roll to open the season, picking up five wins in its first five matches — all on the road. With their recent performance, the Illini have practically guaranteed themselves a top-10 ranking when the next AVCA Coaches Poll comes out tomorrow.

Here’s how the last two weeks have gone for the Illini:

August 24: #12 Illinois 3, UNC Wilmington 0

The Illini started off the season with a sweep, defeating UNC Wilmington 25-15, 25-22, 25-16. The Illini hit .299 for the game, as junior Jacqueline Quade picked up 15 kills in the match. Seniors Ali Bastianelli and Blayke Hranicka also chipped in with nine and eight kills, respectively. Illinois was also able to pick up seven points from service aces, including two each from senior setter Jordyn Poulter and freshman defensive specialist Taylor Kuper.

August 24: #12 Illinois 3, #25 Colorado State 2

Illinois pulled off a five-set win against Colorado State in their second game of the day, 25-16, 25-14, 18-25, 25-27, 15-11. Though Colorado State set a new attendance record of 7,745, Illinois was able to forget about the crowd and put the match away. The Illini hit only .176, but were assisted by some costly mistakes by the Rams, who had 15 service errors in the game and hit an even worse .137. Jacqueline Quade went off for 22 kills, while Megan Cooney picked up 13. Junior middle Ashlyn Fleming, a transfer from the University of the Pacific, also contributed with seven of the Illini’s 13 blocks.

August 25: #12 Illinois 3, Northern Colorado 2

Illinois had its second five-set game in two days, as they defeated Northern Colorado 23-25, 25-23, 25-19, 20-25, 15-12. Hitting .272 as a team, the Illini had another big night from Jacqueline Quade, who had 22 kills and four aces. Megan Cooney picked up another 19 kills, and Blayke Hranicka had five blocks. Jordyn Poulter had 58 assists on the evening, with zero errors.

August 31: #11 Illinois 3, #21 Colorado 0

Having moved up a spot in the polls following the previous week’s performance, the Illini swept another Top 25 opponent in their first game of the B1G/Pac-12 Challenge, 25-19, 26-24, 25-21. The Illini hit .235 on the evening, while holding Colorado to a .095 hitting percentage for the evening. Once again, Jacqueline Quade led the team in kills with 13, while Megan Cooney and redshirt junior Beth Prince had nine each. Taylor Kuper had another great evening serving, picking up three aces on the day. Illinois’s blocking game was strong too, as Ali Bastianelli had six blocks while Ashlyn Fleming had five.

September 1: #11 Illinois 3, #13 Washington 1

In a rematch of last year’s NCAA Tournament second round match, the Illini defeated Washington once again, 25-18, 25-20, 22-25, 25-22. The Illini offense was working, as they hit at a great .356 percentage. Jacqueline Quade set the pace for the offense with 18 kills, while Beth Prince (13) and Megan Cooney (11) also had their kills for the match reach double digits. Ashlyn Fleming picked up eight blocks for the Illini, and Jordyn Poulter had fifty assists for the Illini, with no errors.

Big Picture: The Illini Are Good. Very, Very Good

Coming off of last season’s Sweet 16 appearance, expectations were high for the Illini this season. And to this point, the Illini have met and exceeded those expectations. The Illini are destroying their opponents on the serve, with 32 aces so far this season, after last year’s campaign where they had 140 total. Freshman Taylor Kuper already has 10 aces so far, and the Illini’s season leader in aces last year (O’Brien) had 22.

Though the Illini lost some players after last season, the new players who have moved into those roles are doing great. O’Brien has transitioned into the full-time libero role well, and junior transfer Ashlyn Fleming has excelled in her role as middle blocker so far, leading the team in blocks with 26. Combined with the returning players who have also excelled this season, Illinois should be a team to look out for this year, as they continue to face tough competition throughout the rest of the season.

The Illini play next this Friday at the Cleveland State Invitational, where they will play Bowling Green State and Cleveland State before taking on UC Irvine on Saturday, in what should be their easiest stretch of the non-conference season.

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