After playing back-to-back weekends since January, IU volleyball had its first postponed match of the season last weekend against Northwestern. The teams put out a joint statement, saying the matches were postponed as Northwestern “safely progresses through return-to-play protocols.”
The postponement gave the Hoosiers more time to scout Illinois, who they face this weekend in Champaign, Illinois. The Illini are 4-10 on the season, most recently winning two matches against Maryland.
“They’ve got veteran kids who are good,” head coach Steve Aird said. “When healthy, they’re an exceptional team, and coming off two wins this weekend, they’ve got to be feeling awfully good.”
This weekend is senior night for Illinois, and Illinois is reportedly allowing family and fans in the stadium for the first time all year, Aird said.
Illinois has played five consecutive matches against teams in the top 12. However, it failed to win a match against any of those teams, and IU has had more time to rest and prepare for the match and still feels confident going into the weekend, Aird said.
“I think they feel fresh. They feel excited about the opportunity,” Aird said. “It’s just about executing and competing at a high level.”
Illinois is currently ranked first in the conference in service aces with an average of 1.88 per set. The Illini have two players in the top ten in aces, with junior defensive specialist Taylor Kuper ranked first and freshman outside hitter Raina Terry ranked fourth.
Serve reception and passing has been a focus for the Hoosiers all season, as they have occasionally struggled to pass well and set up good opportunities for kills, which can make it difficult to gain momentum and win games.
“The game is disproportionately skewed toward two skills, and that’s serving and passing. If you can serve really well and control the ball, you can be in matches,” Aird said. “We’re expecting a challenge, but I feel at times we can be an awfully good serving team as well.”
While the Hoosiers may be young, they’ve been able to gather a lot of experience over the season and are used to facing good teams, Aird said.
Sophomore defensive specialist Haley Armstrong said the team focused heavily on teamwork and making sure to adjust when a play doesn’t go as planned, as well as how to keep their energy up to “win the war” even though they may have lost the battle.
“We were able to help our volleyball IQ as a team, and for the freshman that’s amazing because any time you can increase your volleyball IQ in the Big Ten is a win,” Armstrong said.
Aird said he knows execution and experience will come, and he’s going to keep teaching his players as much as he thinks they can handle this season.
“We’re just excited to play a match against a really good team on the road and continue our development as a program, and see if we can keep getting better as the last couple weeks play out in front of us,” Aird said.