First to Five– Illinois: Are You Okay?

By Mila Jasper

Each week, our volleyball columnist Mila Jasper writes about the biggest stories in the Big Ten in “First to Five”. This week, she talks about the recent struggles by Illinois.

Illinois volleyball is having a tough go of it as of late. The stretch they are in is painful: they’ve played Minnesota twice in the past two weeks and headed to Madison to take on one of the strongest teams in the country in the Wisconsin Badgers. And next up is Penn State, who is bound to push the Illini hard. 

But the Big Ten is tough every year. The losses to Minnesota and Wisconsin weren’t necessarily unexpected given that Illinois has had a hard time recovering from the loss of star setter Jordyn Poulter, among other injury-related lineup troubles. But it’s the nature of how they’ve lost that is most alarming. 

While it’s true that volleyball is a game of runs, and therefore momentum swings are normal, the way Illinois is bouncing from bad to good isn’t working now and it’s not going to work any time soon. 

We have to start, well, at the start when it comes to this inconsistency problem. The openers in both of Illinois’ matches this weekend were nothing short of alarming. 

Illinois dropped the first set in Madison to the jaw-dropping tune of 25 to 12. Twelve. They hit a mere .069 percent and notched only nine kills. Wisconsin defensive specialist Lauren Barnes was able to serve nine times – nine times! – before the Illini managed to sideout at 17-6. Cue the “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” memes.

Though they scored four more points for a final tally of 25-16 in Minneapolis, the start against Minnesota was hardly an improvement. The Golden Gophers went on a 6-0 run to kick things off, and Illinois never came within 6 points of Minnesota for the entire set. And while they posted more kills than in the first set against Wisconsin with 11, they hit for a lower percentage, clocking in at just .021 percent. 

Regardless of what came after those opening sets, starting that poorly two nights in a row doesn’t bode well for Illinois. One of the most important aspects to focus on in Illinois’ next match is what kind of tone they set in the first set against Penn State, a program with a long history of putting away any opponent who dares show a crack in the armor.  

In both matches over the weekend, Illinois flitted in and out of consciousness after suffering from the first big punch. Against Wisconsin, they were able to hold onto lucidity for sets two and three, where they outhit the Badgers, and, generally speaking, actually played the game. 

But then the set four came, and Wisconsin took it with a score of 25-21, an unpleasant (if you’re Illinois) but not unusual or dramatic score. 

What came next was anything but mundane. Wisconsin delivered a total knockout, holding the Fighting Illini to just 4 measly points. Four. “Fighting” is a strong word there. 

While there was no blowout on the level of that fifth set in the Minnesota match, Illinois was still wracked with a case of inconsistency. 

They managed to carry the momentum for nearly (ahem: nearly) all of set two, holding substantial leads at 11-6, 13-7, and 17-12. At 17-12, Illinois only needed 8 more points to take the set. Minnesota needed 5 just to even it up. Yet Illinois lost the second set, 25-22. 

The difference between sets two and three was timing. Set three ended 25-22 even after Illinois had been down at 15-10 because they were able to recapture momentum right at the end of the set. Illinois scored three straight points when they desperately needed it to finish 25-22. Match saved, right? 

Not right. Just when you thought you were going to get motion sick from all the momentum swings, the fourth set came in and made everything worse. Minnesota actually doubled up in points on Illinois at 18-9. At that point, Minnesota fans had to be thinking it’s a good time to leave because their team has it in the bag. 

Not so fast. The Illini hauled all the way back to 21-19 (still in favor of Minnesota), outscoring the Gophers 10 to 3. Yet after the tremendous work they put in, they were only able to score one more point before Minnesota dashed to match point. 

But Illinois had one more streak left in them. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t good enough. Illinois pushed to 23 on the strong serve of defensive specialist Taylor Kuper. Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon, ever vigilant, called a clever timeout. 

Just like that, a must-win point in a must-win set evaporated. The teams walked back on the court, and the match was over as soon as Minnesota’s Rachel Kilkelly popped up a perfect 3-point pass. Goodbye Illinois, 25-23. 

I put you and myself through the pain of these matches because I have to ask the question. After all that back-and-forth on back-to-back nights, are you, Illinois, okay? Because if I were a part of the Illini program, I’d need a lot more than an ice bath to put me back on my feet. I’ve got whiplash just from watching.

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