Illini Best Volleyball in Five
Champaign, Ill. - Close, but unable to get over the top was the theme for DePaul in its five game heartstopper against Illinois.
The Blue Demons fell behind two games to none 15-11 and 15-8 before storming back with wins in games three and four (15-13, 15-13). The team succumbed in the deciding game 15-13 to drop its record to 5-3 (0-0 C-USA) overall. All three of DePaul's losses have come in five game matches.
Adding to the intensity of the match was the fact the matchup was the home opener for the Illini and drew an announced crowd of 1,529.
The Blue Demons grabbed an early lead in the first game at 3-2, but that was the last time the team held a lead until Melissa Nordine scored an ace to start the third game. Although DePaul trailed by as many as four points in the first game and five in the second, the team rallied to within a point of Illinois several times.
In game one, DePaul trailed 8-4 and 11-7 and each time clawed its way back into the game only to see the Illini make a push and regain momentum. The story repeated itself in game two where the Blue Demons fell behind 7-1 before running the score to 9-8 and trailing by one. The Illini recomposed themselves and recorded six unanswered points to take the game.
The turning point of the match came in the third game when head coach Dawn Dockstader decided to pull defensive specialist Mary Anne Flanigan and leave Christa Dirr, the player she traditionally subs for, in the rotation. Flanigan had struggled, misfiring on her first two serves and not passing as well as she is accustomed. The final straw was a serve she watched fall for an ace after initially recognizing that it was going to fly long.
Involved in the full rotation for the first time in two years, Dirr capably showed she could handle playing the back row. She picked up an ace, but most of her serves challenged Illinois to work to get into its offense.
"They served us very tough," said Illinois head coach Don Hardin. "They made it tough for us to pass the ball and get in our offense. They are a well-coached team and did a lot of things to disrupt our rhythm, especially in the middle where they shut us down for stretches."
Faced with a 13-9 deficit in the third game, the true mettle of the team shone as the Blue Demons battled to take six consecutive points and steal the game. Dirr and Katie Engel sparked the run as the tandem relieved the pressure from Stephanie Bishop. Bishop found the going tough through the first three games connecting on as many kills (nine), as she did hitting errors.
Engel had been a non-factor in the opening two frames as well, recording just three kills in seven attempts. The sophomore outside hitter came to life and recorded five kills in the third game to help restart the offense.
"Engel really didn't start to play until the third game," said Dockstader. "When she finally got going though she was tough to stop. Apart from [Illinois'] Betsy Spicer, she was probably, physically, the strongest player on the floor. When she realizes that, she can be one heck of a player."
Engel finished the match with 15 kills and a .375 hitting percentage after her slow start. Engel's sophomore counterpart, Meg Griffin, was equally successful. She matched Engel's 15 kills and led the team in hitting percentage for most of the game.
"Meg was great tonight," said Dockstader. "She found the holes very well and Illinois had a hard time stopping her."
However, the fate of the team lay in Bishop's hands as she was thrust into the go to role late in the fifth game. Trailing 13-10, Bishop was set on four consecutive possessions and helped pull the score to 14-13 before Illinois squeaked out the win.
Again though, the success of the offense was predicated on the ability of setter Kara Jakusz to distribute the ball efficiently. Jakusz passed 64 assists and produced a season high 17 digs.
"Kara set as well as she ever has in this match," said Dockstader. "She got our hitters in a lot of one on one situations and gave our players a chance to put the ball away."
Despite the loss, Dockstader feels the experience is one the team can carry with them and make them better. She admitted the team needs to realize they took one of the best teams in the Big Ten to five games and its two leading hitters weren't "on" for most of the match. The match looks to serve as a launching point for the Blue Demons as they come home for the first time this season.
DePaul hosts the Blue Demon Invitational Sept. 15-16 and plays their tournament opener at 2 p.m. Friday against Providence College.