Volleyball Report: Close calls abound in Big Ten race
A week ago I asked, where are the upsets in Big Ten volleyball? For a conference with parity from top to bottom it had been an almost as expected start to 2012. Week 3 put that thought to shambles, as one shocking upset and several near misses gave Big Ten volleyball fans the most baffling weekend of the season thus far.
Fifth set shocker at Huff
The Illini had the top-ranked Nittany Lions gasping for air (see the latest rankings at AVCA.org). With match point and a 14-10 lead in the fifth set on Saturday night at Huff Hall, Illinois was one point from wiping away two straight five set losses and earning a season defining win against No. 1 Penn State. Just one kill, one block, one ace or one error on their opponent and the Orange and Blue would have been celebrating their third straight win over the Big Ten’s dominant force. But it would be Penn State that would go on the attack, rattling off five straight points before eventually closing out the set for a remarkable 18-16 comeback win.
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The Nittany Lions would use three kills from Ariel Scott and three blocks from the combination of Katie Slay, Megan Courtney and Micha Hancock in their final eight points to stay unbeaten in conference play and atop the Big Ten standings. Scott would finish with 19 kills, while Slay chipped in 15 to go along with seven blocks and junior Deja McClendon had the match’s final point as she would record a double-double with 15 kills and 15 digs.
Illinois fell to 2-4 in the Big Ten despite the 20 kill, 23 dig performance of redshirt freshman Jocelynn Birks. The loss is agonizing on its own for the Illini but even more so when combined with their other two near misses in the past week and a half. Kevin Hambly’s group may be inexperienced and in transition but they are a few plays away from potentially being tied for first in the conference.
Iowa’s memorable weekend
What a weekend it was for Iowa volleyball, the Hawkeyes not only picked up their first conference win of the season against Indiana but followed it up by stunning No. 12 Purdue in straight sets on Saturday night. It marked the first weekend with back-to-back Big Ten victories for the Hawkeyes since 2008 and the first two-win conference road weekend since 2005.
Iowa came to the state of Indiana on a five match-losing streak and had won only one set in Big Ten play prior to the trip. The Hawkeyes were last in the Big Ten in hitting percentage, kills and assists and had struggled to put the ball away all season, hitting just .170. Iowa coach Sharon Dingman said that she wanted to see her team put together a weekend of competing at a high level and the Hawkeyes came through for their fifth-year coach. Junior Rachael Bedell and sophomore Alex Lovell each had separate 20 kill performances and Iowa hit a combined .256 in what could be a program-building weekend.
Lovell would be named the Big Ten Player of the Week following her effort of 5.3 kills per set in the two matches, becoming the first Hawkeye to earn the honor since 2006. The win over the Boilermakers represented the highest ranked opponent the Hawkeyes have knocked off during Dingman’s tenure and their first win in West Lafayette since 2000.
Next the Hawkeyes will see if they can bring that momentum back to the cavernous Carver-Hawkeye Arena as they welcome Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Huskers prevail on the road
John Cook has seen his team struggle at times on the road this season, dropping their only two matches of the year at Iowa State and at Penn State. The Husker head coach had imparted to his squad that failing to put pressure on teams away from the NU Coliseum has resulted in their only missteps of 2012.
It appeared that the message had gotten through Friday night as Nebraska opened their second road trip of the Big Ten season with a win in the intimidating Boiler Box of Holloway Gymnasium. The Huskers did not let up on a Purdue team that was off to their best start in two decades, frustrating the Boilers ball control throughout the match on their way to a sweep.
Somewhere between West Lafayette and Bloomington, that message was lost. According to Cook, ““This is Big Ten, baby. People bring it. I told them that all day. It’s the Big Ten; everybody thinks they can win. Indiana thought they could win.” The Hoosiers have not won a Big Ten match this season but played some of their most consistent offensive and defensive volleyball, according to head coach Sherry Dunbar and nearly pulled off the upset of the season. Nebraska would pull it together over the final two sets to escape with a two win weekend but the match once again showed that there are no nights off in the Big Ten, especially on the road.
Here are the matches airing live on BTN/BTN2GO this week:
No, 22 Illinois at Michigan
Wed., Oct. 10 at 8 p.m. ET
The Illini and the Wolverines are both 2-4 in the Big Ten, but similar records do not mean these teams come into their meeting at Cliff Keen Arena on equal footing. The Illini have young hitters to go with emerging leaders while the Wolverines are seeking a lineup that will finally have some success in the Big Ten.
Michigan is looking to put up a better defensive lineup with their new front row while the Illini hope to end a three-match skid. The team that plays the best defense will win as both have struggled to stop their opponents as of late.
No. 17 Purdue at No. 1 Penn State
Fri., Oct. 12 at 8 p.m. ET
The Boilermakers flat out had a bad weekend, being swept in both matches at home against Nebraska and Iowa. Now Purdue will need to have a short memory as they make the most difficult road trip in the Big Ten. The Boilers have not won in Rec Hall since 1982 and have only beaten the Nittany Lions once in the past 24 seasons (2010 in West Lafayette).
Penn State stole victory from the Illini on Saturday night and will continue to depend on Katie Slay in the middle to open things up for the rest of the offense. The Nittany Lions are looking more like the Penn State teams of the past, great offensive balance and finding ways to win on the road. But if they do not cut down on their service errors (13 against Illinois) eventually a Big Ten foe will get them, possibly Purdue.
|Mike Wolf is a BTN announcer and calls Big Ten volleyball matches on the Big Ten Network. His Volleyball Reports will appear on BTN.com every Tuesday for the rest of the Big Ten volleyball season. You can also follow our extended volleyball coverage on Twitter with @BTNvolleyball.|