DigNittany Preview: Illinois

Huff Hall
Huff Hall

For many college volleyball fans, Saturday night’s match between Illinois and Penn State, at Illinois’ Huff Hall (pictured above) will be the first real measure of how Penn State’s undefeated, #1-ranked, Women’s Volleyball team compares to last year’s undefeated, National Championship squad. At least, that seems to be the concensus from this VolleyTalk thread (2930 reads and counting): Will Illinois Upset Penn State?.

Not surprisingly, there are at least three schools of thought on the question: yes, no, and maybe. The argument in favor of the upset goes something like this: Penn State is significantly weaker than last year’s squad, and its “cupcake” preseason schedule has left the team unprepared for the challenges of top-level competition. For example, some believe that Northwestern’s tough front line (which features two players in the top 10 blocking stats for the Big 10) will shake the confidence of Penn State’s hitters on Friday night, softening the Nittany Lions up for an upset by Illinois on Saturday.

A major focus of the “maybe” camp is whether Blair Brown, who suffered an ankle injury in the first set against St. Francis last weekend, will be able to compete against Northwestern or Illinois. If she can’t, the maybe’s argue, the key will be how Freshman Darcy Dorton is able to perform, on the road, in front of a large and largely hostile crowd, when consistently confronted with a double block. Talented as Dorton is, many believe that Blair Brown’s presence at the opposite pin has opened up a lot of opportunities for her. Without Blair, the argument goes, Dorton will have a much tougher time of it, a high percentage of balls will be set to Megan Hodge, and a suddenly one-dimensional Penn State will be ripe for an upset.

Generally speaking, the “no’s” believe that the gap between the teams ranked at the very top (read Penn State, Texas, and Washington) and teams ranked in the 11-30 range (say, for example, #15-ranked Illinois) is huge. In their view, for Illinois to upset Penn State, the Nittany Lions would have to bring their “B” game, while the Illini brought their “A+” game – a situation the “no” camp doesn’t see happening.

If Illinois does beat Penn State, the Illini will have duplicated their feat from Sept. 12, 2004 in Huff Hall, when Illinois defeated then-#1 (and two-time defending NCAA Champion), USC, and will have snapped Penn State’s 77-match winning streak (assuming Northwestern doesn’t end it on Friday).

So, having beaten a dead horse to death, again, Let the [Big Ten] games begin!

Time and Place: September 26, 2009, 7:00 p.m. CT.

Media Coverage: Big Ten Network – Live; GameTracker.

The Skinny: Illinois

Illinois finished its non-conference schedule with an 8-1 record, with only two matches that went four sets — victories over No. 16 Saint Louis and Louisville. The Illinis are hitting .268 as a team (compared to the Nittany Lions’ .448), with opponents hitting .139.

5-11 Junior OH Laura DeBruler leads the Big Ten (and is second in the nation) in kills/set (5.34) and points/set (5.90). Her is hitting .337 for the year, with 70 digs.

5-10 Junior Setter Hillary Haen is ranked #1 in the nation with 12.24 assists/set (the Illini are fourth nationally, with 13.72 assists/set, 13th nationally with 14.21 kills/set, and 25th in hitting percentage at .268.

Here are some key stats for the Illini through 9-20-09:

The Skinny: Penn State

Penn State is 12-0, having won all 36 sets in the preseason. As shown by the stats below (through 9-20-09, courtesy of the NCAA), the Nittany Lions rank first in the country in hitting percentage (.448), 2nd in kills/set (14.75), 5th in assists/set (13.56), 12th in blocks/set (2.86 – Texas is #1 with 3.38/set), and 30th in aces/set (1.83; Georgia State is #1 with 2.33).

6-3 Junior MH Arielle Wilson’s .580 hitting percentage ranks 1st in the NCAA, followed by 6-3 Senior OH Megan Hodge’s .495 (#5 nationally), 6-5 MH/Opp Blair Brown’s .420 (#16) and 6-2 Freshman OH Darcy Dorton’s .343 (#102).

Hodge, who was named on Tuesday as the AVCA National Player of the Week (the second national honor of her career — the first being Sept. 10, 2007) ranks 11th nationally in kills per set with 4.65/set and has totaled 22 blocks.

Arielle Wilson’s 1.44 blocks/set leads the Nittany Lions and ranks 15th nationally. Fatima Balza is second with 40 blocks (1.18/set), which ranks 61st. Blair Brown is second on the team in kills per set (2.94) and third in blocks (31).

6-0 Senior Setter Alisha Glass ranks second nationally in assists per set (12.03), and has totaled 26 kills and 26 blocks. 5-9 Junior Libero Alyssa D’Errico’s 0.69 service aces/set ranks fourth nationally. She is averaging 3.61 digs per set.

We anticipate a Penn State victory, but if Penn State comes out flat, and if Blair Brown’s injury keeps her out of the match, and if Northwestern brings its A+ game, it could be a tough night for the Nittany Lions.

Here are some key statistics for the Nittany Lions through 9-20-09:

The Head Coaches

Illinois: Kevin Hambly

Illinois promoted Kevin Hambly to head volleyball coach prior to the start of the 2009 season. Hambly is the seventh head coach in the program’s history and just the third in the last quarter century. He replaces Don Hardin, who retired after 13 years as head man at Illinois.

Penn State: Russ Rose

Head Coach Russ Rose on where he thinks the 2009 Penn State Women’s Volleyball team stands after the preseason: “We’re making progress . . . albeit, not a rapid progress right now.”