Saturday night brings us the biggest home non-conference match of the year for Marquette volleyball.
It was always going to be that way with Illinois qualifying for the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five seasons under the direction of head coach Chris Tamas last fall and advancing to the Sweet 16 as well. Getting that kind of opportunity in a match in your home gym is always going to be a big deal, and the fact that it was going to come in the final weekend of play before Big East matches start gave it a little extra juice as well.
The match has ratcheted up in importance for the Golden Eagles since the season started, as MU knocked off SEC favorite and then-#11 Kentucky in the opener. That win launched Marquette into the AVCA top 25 and they have stayed there since, falling just once, in match #3 of the year and on the road against reigning national champions Wisconsin.
That means, between MU being ranked ahead of Illinois right now and the match coming in Marquette’s building, that the Golden Eagles can easily be considered the favorite to win. More importantly, they’re favored to win what is one of the most important matches of the week in the entire country. It’s two ranked teams facing off! That’s nationally relevant, no matter how you slice it.
None of that is meant to take away from Sunday’s match against a very good Illinois State program that has had some quality battles with Marquette over the past decade, by the way. All of this is part of MU’s final weekend of action before they start their trek to defend their Big East regular season championship. That’s coming up very quickly on Wednesday night, and again on Saturday with both of those matches coming at home, but that’s a story for down the road. For now, Marquette has to focus on grabbing the big wins in the big opportunities in front of them and maybe, just maybe, hold on tightly to that top 16 RPI number that they had last Tuesday morning.....
Match #9: vs #25 Illinois Fighting Illini (5-3)
Marquette is 0-4 all time against Illinois. The most recent meeting was in 2019 with the two sides meeting on a neutral court and the Illini getting a 3-2 victory. That’s the only time the two sides have met in the regular season, and all three of the other contests have come in the NCAA tournament, including MU’s second ever NCAA tournament contest back in 2011.
Things did not start out well for the Illini this season. They came into the year ranked #17 in the country in the preseason AVCA poll and immediately lost their first match in a sweep. Now, that’s not that big of a deal, since it was 1) on a neutral court and 2) against then-#9 Georgia Tech. Illinois recovered to win their second match at Ole Miss, but the second weekend of the season was pretty much a disaster for them, at least in terms of the ol’ AVCA ranking. Once again, they lost a neutral site match to a team ranked higher than them, falling 3-1 to then-#14 Washington.... but that was their second match of the weekend. The first one was at host Colorado, and the unranked Buffaloes took a 3-0 win.
That’s 1-3 to start the year, and only the fact that two of the losses were to ranked foes kept Illinois in the top 25. They have won four straight since then, including a sweep of Big East opponent Villanova and a sweep of last weekend’s host, a Dayton squad that’s the favorite to win the Atlantic 10 this season. Whatever their problem was, if you can consider it a problem, they seemed to have ironed it out and have now won their last three matches in straight sets. Well, last three matches as of this writing. As you’re reading this on Saturday morning, Illinois is either already preparing for or already playing Illinois State with a 10am Central time start in the Al McGuire Center. MU will play ISU on Sunday, so we’ll talk about the Redbirds a little bit more in a minute.
Part of Illinois’s problems this season may just be missing Kennedy Collins for a stretch. She played in the opener, and then missed the next three matches, and then only played one set against Missouri State, and then sat out against Villanova. The senior from Zion, IL, has played in all six sets since then, so I presume she’ll be in the lineup on Saturday, but it will be their second contest of the day, so we’ll see. She’s averaging 2.60 kills per set and making use of her 6’3” frame to get to 1.50 blocks per frame as well.
Collins isn’t the offensive leader for Illinois, though. That title rests with Raina Terry at the moment, The 6’3” junior is racking up 3.52 kills per set while leading the team in attacks, but she is only hitting .206 on the season after going for a -.037 on 27 swings against Eastern Illinois earlier this week. Jessica Nunge makes for a very good 1-2 punch for the Illini as she’s averaging 3.11 kills and hitting .256.
Diana Brown handles the setting for Illinois, racking up 10.52 assists a frame so far this year. Libero Caroline Barnes is north of an assist per set as well, and with that information, it’s probably not a surprise to you that Brown is actually #2 on the team in digs per set behind Barnes’ 4.11 per frame.
SIDE NOTE: There may be a very weird segment of the crowd at the McGuire Center for this match. Brooke Mosher, the younger sister of former Golden Eagles Madeline and Claire Mosher, plays for Illinois, and the Mosher family hails from Waterloo, Wisconsin. Brooke has played in every set so far this season, so it’s a pretty safe bet that she’ll get a few rotations against Marquette.
Match #10: vs Illinois State Redbirds (6-3)
Marquette is 5-3 all time against Illinois State. The series dates back to an ISU win down in Normal in 2001, and includes a first round NCAA tournament contest in 2014. Marquette has won four of the last five encounters, including last year’s 3-0 victory in Illinois State’s gym.
Breaking News: Illinois State good at volleyball, film at 11. They are the favorites to win the Missouri Valley Conference this season after finishing second a year ago but winning the conference tournament to go to the NCAA tourney for the fourth consecutive season. If they make it back again this season, it will be a new program record for consecutive appearances.
The Redbirds did start off their year with a bit of a scuffle, falling in four sets to Florida State and in five to that very good Dayton team in an event hosted by Cincinnati. The loss to the Flyers — favorites in the A-10 and all — is less bothersome than falling to the Seminoles, as FSU is picked to finish fifth in the ACC, which has a clear top four teams. They followed those two losses up with a five match winning streak, including three straight sweeps, but they’re coming into Milwaukee off a loss. Back last Saturday, ISU lost in straight sets to Memphis in the final match of a tournament that the Tigers were hosting. Road loss, not much to worry about....... but Memphis is picked to finish eighth in the 11 team AAC this season. That’s not ideal.
This contest will be the second one of the weekend for Illinois State, as they’ll be playing Illinois on Saturday morning, perhaps right as you’re reading this. That will give them a few more hours of rest than Marquette, as the Golden Eagles are tangling with the Illini on Saturday evening. What does that mean for Sunday afternoon’s match? Who knows?
Junior Kaitlyn Prondzinski is leading Illinois State’s offense coming into the weekend. She’s good for 3.23 kills per set and she’s hitting a very robust .313 on the year. She’s only second on the team in attacks though, as that category is led by Sarah Kushner. At some point, you have to wonder if head coach Allie Matters will shift her offense, because Kushner is only hitting .185 through nine matches.
Speaking of shifting the offense, setter Katelyn Lefler missed Illinois State’s match with Memphis. That seems incredibly relevant to their loss while hitting just .009 against the Tigers, and it’s the second match this season that Lefler has missed. Nora Janka got the rotations at setter in that one and put up 26 helpers in the loss. Is Lefler good to return to action, or is she going to play against Illinois and see what happens on Sunday, or is she out for sure?