Long Beach, Calif. (UI Release) – The Fighting Illini opened the season exactly how they wanted to, with a 3-0 victory over No. 18 Florida State in the first match of the Long Beach State Mizuno Invitational. The young Illini squad came out confident and held strong, defeating the ranked Seminoles team, 25-18, 25-23, 25-23, in both teams’ season opener.
“The fact that we got a win against a really good team, it speaks more of our potential as opposed to our performance, and I think over time we could be a good team,” said Head Coach Kevin Hambly. “That’s what I see. We have a lot of ways to go and a lot of work ahead of us. I’m glad that it was over 3-0 and we didn’t extend it, because we have a really tough match tonight against Long Beach State.”
Redshirt sophomore Jocelynn Birks came out firing on all cylinders, registering her 12th career 20-kill match with a total of 22 kills, while hitting .333 with two blocks and two aces. Redshirt freshman Maddie Mayers turned heads in her Illini debut, recording 11 kills in 16 swings to hit .625 with four blocks in the middle. Liz McMahon also showed well-rounded poise, tabbing 11 kills, six digs and an ace.
“Jocelynn was really good, and Mayers was really good,” said Hambly. “At times Lizzie was great as well. I’d like to get Ali (Stark) going, we need to get (Anna) Dorn going more. We’ve just got to get more offense.“
On the defensive end, senior libero Jennifer Beltran led the back row with 18 digs, while Ali Stark had 10 and Alexis Viliunas registered nine at setter. The sophomore quarterback put up 35 assists in the three-setter and tabbed a block. As a team, the Illini put together a total of 7.5 blocks, with six different players getting in on the action, including four each from Stark and Mayers.
“When we were playing aggressively, they couldn’t score points against us, and that’s how we needed to play,” Hambly noted. “When we were passive and giving them opportunities to score, they were tearing us up.”
While the Illini had three players with double-digit kills, Florida State’s Elise Walch and Olivera Medic led their team with nine kills apiece, and Nicole Walch added eight.
Illinois outhit FSU .282 to .192 in the match, including .333 to .038 in the first set. The Illini and Seminoles had a similar amount of attack errors, but Illinois won the kill battle 49-35 and narrowly out-dug FSU, 44-41.
The Illini won the first two points of the season and quickly ran out to an early 5-2 lead in the first set. They extended the advantage to 8-4, but a 4-0 run by the Seminoles served out by libero Katie Mosher tied the score at eight. Birks landed a kill to keep the Illini from falling behind but a kill by Medic tied it back up at nine. However a hot service run by Beltran put Illinois back on top 13-9 where they would remain for the rest of the set. FSU made a secondary run to pull within one, 18-17, but the Illini won the final seven of eight points, finished out by two lights-out serves by McMahon to take the first set of the season, 25-18.
Set two mirrored the first set in many ways, as Illinois jumped out to a solid early lead, 8-2, but Florida State pushed right back to tie it at 11 and, for the first time in the match, took a 12-11 lead on a kill by Elise Walch. FSU took four one-point leads, before the Illini went on a 3-0 run to regain the edge, 17-15. The Seminoles would tie the score two more times but never took back the lead, as the Illini held on to win the second set, 25-23.
Florida State gained momentum in the third set, and despite trailing 5-2 early, the Seminoles ran out to a 14-9 lead. However, Illinois fought back to win the next five straight points to tie the score at 14 behind a solid serving run by Stark, who teamed up with Beltran and McMahon for a strong defensive back line.
“Florida State was a cornered animal and they started to fight harder than us,” Hambly recalled. “We’ve been committed that no one will out-work us, from January on, and we need to play that way. I thought that we were getting a little lackadaisical being up 2-0, and we’ve done that in the past, and I thought they turned it around pretty quick.
“There were some key people, like Beltran and Stark and Lizzie, all three of them from the back row, they started making some plays and we started to be better. They started to work and compete, and we need to start getting more of that out of them for the whole match.
“We can’t take breaks. If we take breaks, that’s what’s going to happen. We’ll get exposed.”
A kill by Hailey Luke put FSU back on top, 15-14, but the Illini won the next three to take a 17-15 lead. After a 21-21 tie, the Illini won three straight behind another serving run by Stark to reach their first match point of the year, 24-21. FSU continued to battle, winning the next two points on kills by Nicole Walch, but Birks hammered it shut with her 22nd kill to give the Illini a 3-0 victory with another 25-23 set win.
“As a coach, especially at this time of year, there’s a lot of stuff that you see that was not good. I will take a win, but I don’t really look at it as wins and losses. I didn’t do it last year, I didn’t do it the year before when we started 19-0, that’s not how I look at the game, I look at our performance, and I saw a lot of improvements that we could make.
“It lived up to my expectations. We were probably medium but we have the potential to be great.”
The Illini are back in action tonight against the host team Long Beach State, who, like the Illini, received votes in the AVCA Preseason Poll. Start time is set for 9:30 p.m CT and the match will air live on WDWS 1400 AM in Champaign, along with online video and audio options.
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