Daniel Chi / Asst. photo editor
Beating No. 21 Illinois Friday at Huff Hall won’t break open any bottles of champagne, but getting a victory against an opponent that swept them last year in the regular season and in the NCAA Tournament would be a good start to this weekend’s Big Ten games for the No. 19 Ohio State women’s volleyball team.
For the second consecutive weekend, OSU will face another daunting challenge on the road, as they travel to Illinois Saturday and then to Northwestern on Saturday. The Buckeyes will try to improve their 11-5 overall record.
Instead of a game plan more focused on their defense and how to stop their opponents this weekend, the Buckeyes are switching their mentality to what they can do to become a better unit on the court.
“Well, for this week, I feel like a lot of times in preseason and in previous game plans, we have always been focusing on how we can stop the other team, such as what can we do to put up like a strategic block, or what can we do for defense,” said freshman middle blocker Andrea Kacsits. “This time, I feel like this weekend is more revolving around what can we do to make our game better, on our side of the court no matter what happens on the other side of the court. I feel like our game plan focuses more on us and less on them.”
While Illinois boasts just an 8-6 record, the Illini defeated the Buckeyes three times last season and could present a similar challenge this weekend.
Illinois features a potent offense that is led by redshirt freshman outside hitter Jocelynn Birks and sophomore outside hitter Liz McMahon, while their defense is anchored by senior middle blocker Erin Johnson, who notched her 400th career block in a lost against then-No. 13 Purdue.
Patience will be a key, coach Geoff Carlston said, in how to slow down a high-octane offense that Illinois likes to run.
“They run a very pragmatic, controlled offense, so our group needs to be patient and be ready for long rallies,” Carlston said. “(Birks) is solid for sure. We need to be aware where she is at all times and be disciplined in our digging lanes.”
Defense will also play a huge factor for the Buckeyes, but players feel that they are ready for the big, physical lineup Illinois will present.
“I feel like we’re going to be really prepared. It’s going to be our second away weekend in the Big Ten, so I think were ready,” said junior defensive specialist Julianne Mandolfo. “Illinois is always a huge team, so they have, like, big pin hitters and our back rows are going to be ready for that.”
Specifically for those two hitters in Birks and McMahon, Mandolfo further explained on the preparations they have worked on to make sure they keep them in check.
“We have been preparing with the pins, like you said with two hitters, and basically just all-out defense,” Mandolfo said. “With our front row block and our back row picking up the lanes behind.”
The Buckeyes will also be playing against Northwestern, who are 12-3 overall, at Welsh-Ryan Arena. One of the concerns Carlston has for this matchup is how different this team is from Illinois.
“The second night is challenging when you have two teams that are so different,” Carlston said. “Our focus has to be on Illinois, but we will be ready for the Wildcats on Saturday.”
While Illinois’ offense is led by their two outside hitters, Northwestern is different, as they are lead by their senior setter Madalyn Shalter.
According to Mandolfo, the game plan against the Wildcats will stay relatively the same, but with a new twist.
“Just working mostly on our offense, and for Northwestern, we’re going to get our offense involved a lot, try some new players and new people in the front row,” Mandolfo said.
Whether it is against ranked or unranked opponents, conference or non-conference games, one of the most important things is to be mentally prepared, Kacsits said.
“Being mentally prepared I feel like is our biggest thing because a lot of times, and for me specifically, I can get so caught up in the game that it’s chaos for me,” Kacsits said. “My coaches have been working really hard to make sure that I slow things down. I think that can go for all of my teammates as well, that we need to keep the game slow. We need to figure out what they’re doing on the other side, so we can make the right decisions.”
With the team’s focus and energy mostly geared toward this weekend, players still had some time to think about how it felt to move up three spots in the latest NCAA women’s volleyball rankings to No. 19 in the country.
“It feels really exciting,” Mandolfo said. “I have never been on a team that has been in the top 20, so right now we need to maintain it. Every game is a huge game, so if we keep winning than were going to keep moving up.”
For Carlston, his team moving up in the rankings goes back to how tough their schedule is.
“It says a great deal about the strength of our schedule so far,” Carlston said. “We have played five matches against top 10 opponents, and 10 of our 16 have been against Top 25 teams in the nation.”
Kacsits reflected her coach’s answer and really elaborated that records don’t tell the whole story.
“Well, honestly, I feel like the record doesn’t even matter,” Kacsits said. “It’s like, of course it matters, but it’s the game that we lost, we didn’t lose by much. To the teams we lost to, like Minnesota for instance, we made maybe five or six unforced errors and we lost to them 25-23 in every set.”
Kacsists said she knows this team has potential, and it is up to them to realize what they can accomplish as a team.
“So it’s like we have the potential to be in the top 10, we just have to work through that thing,” she said. “That is what the season is for, that is what this is for and that’s what we are working for. Hopefully, we can be in the top 10 soon.”