Nov. 7, 2009

Illinois-Michigan has always meant a battle in volleyball. Throw in an Illini victory earlier this year in Ann Arbor, a No. 5 ranking for Illinois, a No. 15 ranking for Michigan and a brand new libero and the match had a lot of storylines. In the end, Illinois picked up offensive steam as the match went on for its 10th straight win - 25-27, 25-22, 25-21, 25-17 - to improve to 19-3 and maintain a two-game lead for second place in the Big Ten at 11-2 in the conference.

"That is what we get every time we play Michigan - a battle," said Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly. "With what we went through the last week, to figure out what we're going to do in basically two days, I thought this was a real gut check match for us."

Sophomore Rachel Feldman made her first collegiate start at libero after four-year starter Ashley Edinger suffered an ACL tear just six days earlier. The Normal Community graduate came into the match with eight career digs. Friday against Michigan, she tallied 19 digs, was served at 41 times and not aced once.

"They attacked her every way they possibly could - hitting at her and serving at her and I thought she did a great job," Hambly said. "She jumped into that role with both feet and was aggressive. That's going to be key for us the rest of the way."

Junior Laura DeBruler had just two kills in the first set, but finished the night with her 33rd 20-kill match of her career (21 kills total), including nine in the third set, while hitting .283. With her first kill in the second set, the All-American became just the sixth Illinois player with 1,500 kills.

Michigan led 23-18 in the first set, but Illinois responded with six straight points, the final an ace from Hillary Haen (44 assists, 14 digs) to go in front 24-23, and although Michigan came back to take the set, the Illini rally set the tone for the next three sets.

Michigan's lefty hitter Alex Hunt had 13 kills in the first two sets en route to a team-high 19 kills. The Illini, however, had six blocks in each of the first two sets, 10 involving junior Johannah Bangert, as the Illini front and back row defense began to slow down the Michigan attack. The Illini out-blocked the Wolverines 17-6 overall on the night paced by 12 from Bangert, the fifth career match with 12 or more. Michigan hit just .130, including .042 in set two and .056 in set four. The Illini, meanwhile improved to .271 in set three and .256 in set four good for .203 for the night.

"Our best offense was keeping the ball in play and blocking," Hambly said. "It was the reason we got back into it in the first set and the reason we won the second set."

Illinois jumped in front 16-10 in the second set, withstood a rally that brought the Wolverines to within 18-16 and pulled out a 25-22 victory. Illinois had just eight kills in that second set, half of which came from DeBruler, but Feldman and Bartsch combined for 11 digs and the Illini tallied six blocks in the set, forcing Michigan to 12 hitting errors.

"Rachel needed to be on the court when we won a set," Hambly said. "We pulled that out and she was way more comfortable. Everything was different after that."

"A lot of people on our team can do more than what they're known for," Feldman said. "Out hitters can set and pass. So I had a lot of confidence that whatever happened, there was going to be a great play out of it."

Case in point was Bartsch, who matched Feldman with 19 digs to go along with her nine kills and nine blocks. In all, five players reached double digits in digs as Illinois kept rallies going. In set four, freshman Jackie Wolfe entered to serve with Illinois leading just 16-14. The Illini scored three straight points off the Wolfe serve, two on block assists from Bartsch and Erin Johnson.

From there, DeBruler was the terminator - hitting roll shot over the block, exploding with power down the line, or finding a seam in the back row. The Illini were also able to get the ball to the middle. Bangert had seven kills while hitting .429 and Johnson tallied five kills and five blocks while hitting .364

The third and fourth sets were back-and-forth affairs. In set three, the Illini broke open an 18-18 score by out-scoring the Wolverines 7-3 down the stretch with Bartsch and DeBruler combining for five kills. The Illini trailed 13-11 in the fourth set, but scored four straight to go in front 15-13 and never trailed from there.

To make it 11 straight wins in the conference, the Illini will need to avenge one of its conference losses as Michigan State comes to Huff on Saturday night. The Spartans took down Illinois in five sets in East Lansing. First serve is 7 p.m.