By Anna Kayser
Iowa volleyball will return home for two matches against mid-conference opponents that will be critical in the long run.
The Hawkeyes will face Illinois at 7 p.m. today and Northwestern at 7 p.m. Saturday, both in Carver-Hawkeye.
Illinois is 15-4 this season with a 6-2 Big Ten record. In its last action, it swept Ohio State and Maryland.
The Illini are big on blocking. They lead the conference and are ranked No. 9 in the nation with an average of 3.02 blocks per set. One of their middle blockers, Ali Bastianelli, leads the nation with 1.80 blocks per set, and she owns 110 out of the team’s 193 season blocks.
“I think just having our hitters be able to identify the block and know when they need to maybe tool it or hit around it is going to be really important,” senior libero Annika Olsen said. “Also, back-row players covering our hitters, knowing that sometimes they are going to get blocked, but if we can dig that ball up back behind them, play can go on.”
Getting a win against teams such as Illinois is important for Iowa’s season goal of making it to the NCAA Tournament.
Last season, the Hawkeyes beat the Illini in a five-set match at home. Building on that is key
going into tonight.
“Illinois really presents a great top-25 RPI match for us at home,” head coach Bond Shymansky said. “They’re long and strong and play a really clean game, [and] their setter distributes really well. We’ll have our work cut out for us. We’re going to have to pass really well. They’re a strong serving team as well, but we’re definitely looking forward to that matchup.”
After Illinois, Iowa will have to shift its focus right away for Saturday’s match against Northwestern.
The Wildcats are 12-8, 2-6 in the Big Ten after losing to Maryland in five sets and being swept by Ohio State.
Serving is a key part of Northwestern’s game. The Wildcats rank fourth in the nation and lead the Big Ten in aces per set (1.81).
Preparing for a good serving team comes with taking a lot of reps during practice.
“Serve receive is really a good focus thing, a good mental thing, something that you really just have to work on over and over again or else you’ll lose your touch,” Olsen said.
The Hawkeyes will also have to focus on stopping outside hitter Symone Abbott, who leads the conference and is No. 17 in the nation with 4.40 kills per set.
“That will be a lot for us to contain,” Shymansky said. “I thought we did a great job against Minnesota against one of their outside hitters. We’re going to have to stop two this weekend with both teams, Northwestern and Illinois.”
Entering the last month of the season, Iowa is still improving. However, being in that spot isn’t something to be worried about.
Playing unranked opponents, especially in the Big Ten, is rare, so the Hawkeyes are ready to use what they’ve learned against high-ranked opponents to rack up some wins this weekend.
“You always want to be improving in the middle of your season, and that’s exactly what we’re doing, and it’s showing when we’re playing really high-ranked opponents right now,” senior middle blocker Jess Janota said. “Especially this weekend, I’m just excited to play teams that are hanging around with us in the standings right now in the Big Ten.”