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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hot Trend: Volleyball Welcomes Nittany Lion Squad Riding a 76-match Winning Streak


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This weekend provides the first true test of the strength and power of the Illinois volleyball team.

The No. 15 Illini host Ohio State at Huff Hall on Friday night in their Big Ten opener, but the ultimate challenge comes Saturday night, when No. 1 Penn State comes to town for a game featured live on the Big Ten Network. The Nittany Lion have not lost a regular-season set since 2007 and are riding a 76-match winning streak into this weekend.

"Against Penn State, we have to pass and take care of the ball that's a big deal because they're the most successful recovery team in the country," said head coach Kevin Hambly.

The Illini hope the home-court advantage will give them an edge.

"Having the home crowd definitely helps because then you don't have to bring as much energy from yourself," senior Kylie McCulley said. "But, that's what we are working on as a team, being able to bring energy from ourselves no matter what."

Hosting the top team in the nation makes for a pretty exciting start to the conference season in the Illini's eyes.

"We are just really excited to start playing Big Ten again, it's just a different kind of competition," sophomore Michelle Bartsch said.

"It will be a little eye-opening for (freshman starter) Erin (Johnson) because she hasn't been exposed to Big Ten play yet. It is just a lot more physical, the girls are a lot taller. Everyone just competes so hard in this conference."

Illinois has been focusing on building off its success in the nonconference portion of the season.

"I think, carrying on from last weekend, we're just going to work on our blocks and our defense. We just want to be stronger," McCulley said.

Although the Illini faced both teams last season, they know teams change their lineups, leading to a different atmosphere.

"This is a really tough weekend, they are both really good teams, and they're better then they were last year but so are we," McCulley said. "Every year we learn more about them and ourselves. It's hard to guess what they'll bring this year."

Even after a solid run in nonconference play, Hambly is unsure of how the team will perform.

"It's just a different level of athletes with different challenges every weekend," head coach Kevin Hambly said. "I am just curious to see how this works out. I think we're ready physically and (strategically). I just want to see what happens, see if we're ready for the grind of the Big Ten."

The Illini start off the weekend with Ohio State at 7 p.m. on Friday.

The Buckeyes are off to a 12-1 start and are coming off a title at the Sports Imports Classic in Columbus, Ohio.

"Ohio State has three really, really good players, these are top level players and how well we handle them and how well we play offensively, those are the keys," Hambly said.

Hambly thinks this tough level of competition early in the season will help the players know exactly what they need to work on.

"It's nice to start the Big Ten play at home," Hambly said. "If we're going to play Penn State and Ohio State we want to play them early because they are going to be really good at the end of the year, and we would rather have them now."

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