It’s been an up-and-down year for Illinois Volleyball. Injuries and the nature of the Big Ten being the toughest volleyball conference in the nation have made the 2023 season tough for the Illini, but following a two-match road trip to the East Coast, they are .500 on the season.
“Everyone’s tough and you’re seeing that with results within our conference,” said head coach Chris Tamas. “The gap is dwindling between the top and the bottom.”
The team is on the longest winning streak of its season with three straight W’s. It comes after three straight losses against teams that were ranked or receiving votes (at #19 Purdue, vs. #1 Wisconsin and at Ohio State). Their three wins have come against two teams that Illinois has historically had great success against: Rutgers (16-1 all-time) and Maryland (15-0 all-time).
There are no easy road games in the Big Ten, even if they come from teams that Illinois is a combined 31-1 against. “Maryland and Rutgers, they’re dangerous at home. They’ve proven that year in and year out especially recently,” Tamas said at his availability before this week’s matches.
The stars seem to be aligning for this Fighting Illini team. Raina Terry is days removed from setting her career high in kills while Jessica Nunge just tied her career high at Rutgers. Kayla Burbage looks to be recovered from her ankle injury and Brooke Mosher’s new-and-improved jump serve is causing problems for opposition defenses.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Don’t get your hopes up, Chris Tamas will not be on the sidelines as Ken from the Barbie movie.
Trick-or-treat without a costume?! That's criminal.— Illinois Volleyball (@IlliniVBall) October 23, 2023
Come dressed in your best spooky season attire to our match on Oct. 25 and trick-or-treat with student-athletes in Huff Hall. Doors open at 5:30 PM.#Illini | #HTTO pic.twitter.com/wjoJ26bXru
A good week for citizens of Nunge Nation
That’s seven 20+ kill matches for Queen Victorious this season.
HOMECOMING AWAY FROM HOME
Over the weekend, the team had the opportunity to visit New York City. They were in between matches against Maryland and Rutgers, even getting the chance to catch a musical on Broadway.
For some Illini, it was their first time in the Big Apple. For Vanessa Pan, it was closer to a homecoming than the homecoming that many of her teammates had missed over the weekend.
Pan, a defensive specialist/libero graduate student, spent four years at Columbia University. She played her home games in Manhattan, and while she couldn’t catch up with her former teammates as they were on the road, she said “it was nice being back in the city, and having the team in the city was a cross of roads, so it was very fun.”
Another Homecoming-like storyline to follow throughout the week will be that of Purdue Boilermakers outside hitter Kenna Wollard. The freshman never called Champaign home, but she comes from a household of Orange and Blue.
Her parents Kristie Warfield and Jason Wollard were student-athletes at Illinois, her mother a swimmer and her father a baseball player. Jason Wollard is ranked tenth all-time among Illinois pitchers for wins.
Following the Boilermakers’ 3-0 win over the Fighting Illini at Holloway Gym on Oc. 4, Wollard reflected on the moment, getting to play against a team she’s known since birth.
“I’ve been dreaming of playing in the Big Ten and going to all the Illinois games was something I’d always done,” she said. “So getting to play against them today was very cool and, like I said, a dream of mine.”
COMING UP NEXT
The past three wins for Illinois have come against opponents that rank below them in the RPI rankings. In fact, that’s the case for all of the team’s wins this season. Their upcoming opponents three all rank above their 95th ranking — Indiana is 46th, Purdue is 15th and Northwestern is 63rd.
If you’re a firm believer in new-age, results-based metrics like RPI, you’d think the cards are stacked against the Fighting Illini in this three-match homestand. If you’re rooting for Illinois, you’d say history has a way of repeating itself.
Indiana is a team that you could categorize with the likes of Maryland and Rutgers. The Fighting Illini are 74-19 all-time against the Hoosiers, though they did lose to them earlier this year in Bloomington. At home, they’ve won 20 out of the last 23 against them. Another loss against them will change the narrative in this matchup between regional foes.
The Hoosiers will be a tough team to defeat. They’re 16-7, all but guaranteeing them an above .500 finish. The last time they had even reached 16 wins was in 2018 when they finished 16-15. There is a feeling that the tides may be shifting, with Indiana tallying its first back-to-back wins against Illinois since the 2000 season.
The Hoosier attack could pose some issues for an Illinois block that has received plaudits from the coaching staff in recent weeks. They have six players who have registered triple-digit kills this season (for comparison, Illinois has four: Raina Terry, Kennedy Collins, Kayla Burbage and Jessica Nunge).
Keep an eye on Indiana libero Ramsey Gary. She made her presence known in Illinois’s first meeting with them earlier this year and is currently the Big Ten’s leader in digs with 350.
The match is set for Wednesday and first serve is set to take place at 7 p.m. C.T. from Huff Hall on Big Ten Network.
Purdue made quick work of Illinois when the Fighting Illini visited Holloway Gym in West Lafayette. In front of a sold-out crowd of 2,415, the home team swept the visitors, giving up just 46 points across three sets.
In Dave Shondell’s 21 years as head coach of Purdue’s volleyball team, this is the youngest team he’s ever had.
“I was listening to the starting lineups, the first one out was a freshman, the second one out was a freshman, the third one out was a freshman... we’re a young team,” he said.
With the youth also comes a very talented team. Middle blocker Raven Colvin and outside hitter Chloe Chicoine were honored in the Big Ten’s Volleyball Weekly Awards as Defensive Player of the Week and Freshman of the Week, respectively.
#B1GVolleyball WEEKLY AWARDS— Big Ten Volleyball (@B1GVolleyball) October 23, 2023
Player: @HuskerVB's Merritt Beason
Defensive: @PurdueVB's Raven Colvin
Setter: @HuskerVB's Bergen Reilly
Freshman: @PurdueVB's Chloe Chicoine
➕ https://t.co/7KYNQLRfTM pic.twitter.com/QSQ2DjP0bv
In their win, the Boilermakers controlled the service game with nine aces to Illinois’s two, and also demonstrated greater accuracy with six errors, while Illinois committed ten. One of the biggest changes for Illinois since that loss away from home is the improvement in their serve-and-receive game.
“We’re hitting our serves better. It’s an emphasis we’ve always had here as a program and I felt like we didn’t have it that much this season up until a couple weeks ago,” Tamas said. “Brooke [Mosher] switched to the jump serve, Vanessa [Pan] is a little bit more comfortable. All servers are just hitting a better ball right now.”
First serve for the match on Saturday is set to take place at 6 p.m. C.T. from Huff Hall on Big Ten Plus.
Northwestern is another team that Illinois has historically had success against, but the Wildcats have been making it hard for the Fighting Illini in recent years. Their last five meetings are split 3-2, with the Illini taking the upper hand.
Just like Illinois, Northwestern is 10-10, meaning they have a lot to fight for as the season comes to a close.
It will be a close one. Northwestern came out on top against a Purdue team that dominated Illinois but fell at home to a Michigan State team that Illinois beat in five sets at Huff.
Keep an eye on outside hitter Julia Sangiacomo. She’s fourth in the Big Ten in points, just three spots behind Raina Terry and will be a tough assignment for the Illinois block.
First serve on Wednesday, Nov. 1 will be at 8 p.m. C.T. from Huff Hall on Big Ten Network.
ALMOST TOURNEY TIME...
Illinois has to be on its A-game in the last ten matches if it wishes to grab one of 32 at-large bids for the tournament. With other Big Ten schools like Purdue, Penn State, Ohio State and one of Wisconsin or Nebraska (whichever ends up not being the conference champ), starting their last ten games on the right foot is crucial.
Spending December at home would mean back-to-back seasons of no postseason volleyball. The last time that happened for Illinois was in 2007, a time when Maryland, Nebraska and Rutgers weren’t even in the conference.