EVANSTON, Ill. — The Welsh-Ryan Arena had a mixed crowd for Saturday evening’s match between the Northwestern Wildcats and the Illinois Fighting Illini. The mix of orange and purple in the crowd of 1,192 made it look like Phoenix Suns fans from afar.
First serve came just hours after NU’s football team earned a hard-fought two-point victory at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
It was Senior Night for the Wildcats, with Ellie Husemann, Maddy Chinn, Leilani Dodson, Natalie Chizzo, Juliana Sangiacomo and Alexa Rousseau set to leave the program at the conclusion of the season.
The post-match festivities would be done in no rush, as the Wildcats would make quick work of Illinois, winning 3-0 (25-15, 25-15, 25-16) in an hour and eighteen minutes. It’s Illinois’ eighth three-set loss of the year.
“They played really good on Senior Night. Teams tend to do that, as did we,” Illinois head coach Chris Tamas said after the match. “Again, every team in this conference is good and you have to bring your best no matter who’s on the other side of the net.”
Illinois falls to 16-14 (11-9 Big Ten) to wrap up the season and finish joint-sixth in the conference, while Northwestern finishes 15-15 (9-11 Big Ten).
Though hopes of a postseason berth were likely extinguished after the loss at Minnesota on Friday, the loss on Saturday at Northwestern was the nail in the coffin.
HOW IT HAPPENED
If the first set was your first time watching Illinois and Northwestern play, you’d never guess that the Fighting Illini swept the Wildcats in their first meeting earlier this year at Huff Hall.
Northwestern played almost flawlessly, with no attack errors and no service errors to Illinois’ five and three, respectively.
The home team had 14 kills in the first set to the visitors’ 15. From this, you could take away that the Fighting Illini were in “killing positions” much more often than the Wildcats, but couldn’t convert on those chances.
The second set was more of the same. Illinois struggled to get into any kind of offensive rhythm while Northwestern was on beat from start to finish. Illinois had eight attack errors in the frame, with only one of them coming via a Northwestern block.
Five of Northwestern’s 25 points in set three came from Illinois service errors. Six came by way of Illinois attack errors, and an additional five from NU blocks.
The Fighting Illini actually had more kills in the match, with 35 to Northwestern’s 31, but hit at .088 against .250.
“It’s not indicative of who we were all season,” Tamas said. “I thought they were just one contact better than us and that’s just the way it goes sometimes.”
Graduate middle blocker Kennedy Collins, who started her Orange and Blue career in 2019, has finished her collegiate volleyball career. She walks away from the team with 426 block assists, good for eight on the career all-time list at Illinois.
In the 2023 season, Illinois was one of two teams in the nation to have six players play in every set, with Arkansas being the other team. Kennedy Collins, Lilly Barry, Cari Bohm, Raina Terry, Vanessa Pan and Brooke Mosher were those six.
This group had a lot of experience, and will lose Collins and Pan heading into 2024.
It will be an offseason of wondering “what if” for Illinois. It’s their second season in a row with no postseason volleyball. The last time that happened was 2006-07. The last time Illinois made the postseason was in 2021 when they reached the Sweet Sixteen.
The season is over, and building for 2024 is on the to-do list.
Collins, Pan and Nunge’s departures will need to be met with adequate replacements. While the likes of Bohm, Barry and Burbage can step up even in a leadership sense, their own spots will need incomings for depth.
Tamas and his staff will without a doubt be looking to add to their roster through the transfer portal. One of the biggest draws of coming to Illinois? Playing with, practicing with and learning from Raina Terry, who is returning for her fifth season.