Match Preview (with Masked Fan): Illinois at Rec Hall (on Friday the 13th)

The Match: Illinois vs. Penn State
When & Where: November 13, 2009, 7:00 p.m. ET.; Rec Hall
Media Coverage: Big Ten Network – Live, Game Tracker

Back at the end of September, when the Penn State Women’s volleyball team went on the road to face then #15-ranked Illinois, many fans thought the match was the most likely (along with Michigan at Ann Arbor) Penn State loss in the 2009 regular season.

The argument in favor of the upset? Penn State’s “cupcake” preseason schedule had left a weaker (than the 2008 squad — arguably the best of all time) team unprepared for the challenges of top-level competition. The Nittany Lions’ confidence would be shaken after facing Northwestern’s tough front line (which featured two players in the top 10 (at the time) in blocking stats for the Big 10) in their Friday night contest, leaving Penn State vulnerable against a much tougher Illinois squad for the Saturday night match.

Other fans thought Illinois had a chance if Blair Brown, who had suffered an ankle injury in the first set against St. Francis the previous weekend, couldn’t play, or was significantly hampered. Then, the argument went, the key would be how Freshman Darcy Dorton was able to perform, on the road, in front of a large and largely hostile crowd, when consistently confronted with a double block. Some thought she would struggle, that a high percentage of balls would be set to Megan Hodge, and that a suddenly one-dimensional Penn State team would be ripe for the upset.

It didn’t happen. Blair Brown did play (registering 9 kills on .381 hitting), and Penn State gave Illinois a thumping 3-0 (25-11, 25-17, 25-17), led by Dorton’s 14 kills, followed by junior Arielle Wilson’s 13 kills (on .750 hitting!!!). Megan Hodge had 12 kills (hitting .407) and 10 digs.

Here are video highlights of that match:

If you’re smart, you’ll forget you ever saw that video, because they’re back (on Friday the 13th, no less) and it’s a much-improved Illinois team (now ranked #5 in the AVCA poll) that will face off against Penn State. Please, no pre-hatched chicken counting!

Q&A with Masked Fan

To provide some insight on what to expect Friday night, we’ve asked Masked Fan, our Resident Analyst, to give us some thoughts about the upcoming match.

DigNittany: Friday the 13th typically is viewed as a pretty scary night. Illinois comes into Rec Hall ranked #5 in the country, led by 5-11 Junior OH Laura DeBruler (second in the Big Ten with 4.50 kills/set), 5-10 Junior Setter Hillary Haen (second in the Big Ten with 11.38 assists/set), 6-1 Jr. MB Johannah Bangert (who leads the Big Ten in blocking with 1.70/set), and 6-3 So. Opp. Michelle Bartsch (ranked #6 in blocking in the Big Ten with 1.12/set). Which of those players worries you the most?

Masked Fan: Well, Michelle Bartsch had an AMAZING match against Penn State when they played back in September. She was the only Illini in double-figure kills and hit an impressive .343 against the defending national champions. I really like her as a player and I think she could be the one to give the Lions trouble at home this weekend.

As for the rest of the Illini, all of them have stepped up their game from September. They’re riding an 11-match win streak heading into this Friday’s battle in Rec Hall and the player who has led them there is Laura DeBruler. DeBruler is playing like an All-American and is putting up very good numbers, despite being “undersized” for her position. She’s the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week and has won that award twice this season.

She put on a clinic this past weekend against the Michigan schools, averaging 5.1 kills on .367 hitting, while also contributing 2.6 digs and 0.7 blocks per set. She is second only to Megan Hodge in kills per game in the Big Ten and she definitely should not be overlooked. However, she’s never really had a good match against the Nittany Lions — one way or another, it seems she’s always been taken out of the match. Back in September, Penn State held her to only 6 kills with 5 errors, and I think they’ll have similar success with her this time around. If I’m wrong, and DeBruler has a big match, the Nittany Lions are in for a long night.

Hillary Haen is one of the better setters in the country, though she is often overlooked in a conference that features All-American setters Lexi Zimmerman and Alisha Glass. When a team enters the top five in the nation, the setter really deserves some recognition. No team gets there without an outstanding setter. As good as she is, though, she would be even better if she were more deceptive and offensive. She can become very predictable in her set selections as a match goes on.

Johannah Bangert puts up a wall with her block, but she’s going to be seriously outmatched by Arielle Wilson. Her offensive skills just aren’t in the same category as Arielle Wilson’s. That’s not a knock on Bangert — I really like her game — it’s just that Arielle Wilson is an extraordinary player.

The real personnel question here is how the new libero, 5-4 So. DS Rachel Feldman, is going to handle her new role and the pressure of playing against #1. I think that the game, for her, will be almost entirely mental: if she starts off playing well, and has some success, she could have a big impact; if she faces some adversity early on, the little things could shake her confidence and affect her performance.

DigNittany: Illinois is second in the Big Ten in opponent’s hitting percentage (.142 to #1 Penn State’s .090). What makes the Illini so good, and what will be the keys to their defense on Friday night?

Masked Fan: The Illini are so good for two simple reasons: they have great personnel and are very well coached. Bartsch and DeBruler are the main offensive weapons and are supported nicely by Bangert. Against Penn State’s heavy hitting All-Americans, however, I think they’ll really miss Edinger. Without her, I don’t believe the Illini defense will be able to keep up.

The keys to their defense will be blocking, blocking, blocking. Bangert needs to solidify herself as a defensive threat because, with a new libero running the back court, balls that used to fly by the block and get popped up just won’t. Feldman is performing admirably, but she hasn’t faced a well-oiled offense like PSU’s before. No offense in the country is more complicated than Penn State’s and that’s a lot for a libero to deal with. That’s not to say the Illini need to stuff every attack (though it would be helpful — and a coach’s dream — if they did). They just need to get touches on the ball and make it easier for the new libero to handle.

DigNittany: Megan Hodge seems to have struggled in recent matches. What’s up with that?

Masked Fan: Hmm… yes, the last two matches have not been the best that Megan Hodge has produced, but matches like that happen to the best of players, and Megan Hodge is one of the best outside hitters in the history of the game at this level. Matches like the ones she had against Wisconsin and Iowa this past weekend just prove she’s human! People see that she had two matches with subpar numbers, but the truth is, neither of the matches she had last weekend would have caused raised eyebrows if Megan Hodge weren’t such an extraordinary player to begin with. It’s just that we’ve come to expect so much out of her that hitting less than .300 is a shock.

Everyone has off-nights, but Megan Hodge has been having a remarkable season so far. And her performance always seems to rise when the level of competition rises. She has the ability to take her game to a completely different level when the game is on the line. I expect that she’ll have an outstanding match Friday night — I look for Megan Hodge to redeem herself (not that she really needs redemption) against Illinois.

DigNittany: Kevin Hambly is in his first season as Illinois’ head volleyball coach. How’s he doing?

Masked Fan Kevin Hambly is doing an outstanding job in his first season. He’s taken the program from #15 to #5 in just over a month. That’s some good coaching.

Kevin has a lot of coaching and playing experience and you can see the effect it has had on his team — it is one of the reasons they’re playing at the level that they are. He recruited most of the players on the roster now and I think it’s great that he finally gets the recognition for their success. Hambly really tends to focus on blocking (he was an All-American middle blocker at BYU) and I think that is something he’s really drilling into his players this week during practice in order for them to be ready for their second shot at Penn State.

DigNittany: So, Masked Fan, what’s your prediction?

Masked Fan: Penn State in three. Both teams have improved, but thinking about Penn State improving is just scary. Every player for PSU has gotten significantly better, and the same isn’t true for Illinois, which lost a key member of its starting lineup when Edinger went down. Illinois is a very good opponent, but they are outmatched at every position by the Nittany Lions, who field four 2008 All-Americans and one freshman who is hitting like one. The loss of Edinger really seals the deal for me. This will be Penn State’s 91st consecutive win.

DigNittany: Thanks Masked Fan. We’ll be watching the match to see how things turn out. Let’s hope for a good one!

Stat Joust

We all have to wait until Friday to see how the actual players fare against one another, so in the meantime, we’re left with the statistics. Here’s our Stat Joust — a look at how the Penn State and Illinois teams and individual players rank among the Big Ten statistical leaders through 11-8-09: