OSU junior defensive specialist Valeria Leon (3) prepares to hit the ball during a game against Florida State on Sept. 6 at St. John Arena. OSU won 3-1. Credit: Courtesy of OSU

OSU junior defensive specialist Valeria Leon (3) prepares to hit the ball during a game against Florida State on Sept. 6 at St. John Arena. OSU won 3-1. Credit: Courtesy of OSU

Now that the Ohio State women’s volleyball team has made its way through the Big Ten conference teams once, the ledger is filled with only rematches for the remainder of the regular season.

The first of that docket is set to come on Wednesday when No. 14 OSU (20-6, 9-5) hosts No. 16 Illinois (17-8, 8-6) at 6:30 p.m. in St. John Arena.

The Buckeyes took home a four-set victory in the teams’ first matchup in Champaign, Illinois, on Oct. 10.

OSU coach Geoff Carlston expects the Fighting Illini to be motivated after falling to his team earlier in the season.

“I’m sure their coach is going to be using the, ‘Hey, they came into our place and beat us, we need to do the same thing here,’” Carlston said.

Although the Buckeyes had success against Illinois last month, that’s not on their minds heading into the upcoming matchup. They know these late-season contests are unpredictable.

“Everybody’s played each other and then you never know what’s going to happen,” senior outside hitter Katie Mitchell said. “People can have good weekends, bad weekends, change lineups, injuries — anything can happen.”

The Fighting Illini have found their footing after going 4-6 to open up conference play, winning their last four games.

They’re led by preseason all-Big Ten selection and redshirt senior outside hitter Jocelynn Birks, who ranks third in the conference with 4.05 kills per set. Defense, however, is what makes them tough to deal with.

Illinois has been one of the better blocking teams in the Big Ten all season — currently ranking fourth in the conference with 2.71 blocks per set — but lately, it has kicked it into high gear, averaging 13 blocks per game over its last four contests.

Carlston said the key to combatting the Fighting Illini’s blocking is passing and the play of his outside hitters, who need to be “smart, but aggressive” with their attacks.

For the season, Illinois has been led in blocks by freshman middle blocker Ali Bastianelli (114) and junior middle blocker Katie Stadick (98), but it’s the play of junior opposite hitter Naya Crittenden that has Carlston’s attention.

“Their right side, (Crittenden), is just a really formidable block right now,” Carlston said of the Oregon transfer. “She’s hard to hit around.”

Crittenden has 24 blocks during her team’s winning streak — including 11 in its most recent win against Northwestern — for an average of 1.5 per set.

“We know they’re a really big, physical team, so it’s kind of like the big kids against the big kids,” Mitchell said.

Dealing with adversity

Contrary to Illinois, the Buckeyes started off conference play hot but have hit their first rough patch of the season lately, losing four of their last six matches.

“The reality is, you’re going to have ebb and flow in the season and we’re grinding right now as a group,” Carlston said. “I liked how we responded (against Rutgers) and we’re going to have to continue to do that moving forward.”

Part of OSU’s struggles can be tied to the loss of starting freshman setter Taylor Hughes, who has played in only two of those six games after suffering an elbow injury.

The team has taken some time to adapt to new starter Emily Ruetter, but Carlston feels that his team is finally getting used to the senior’s different style of play.

“Emily’s doing a great job. When you lose your setter, the new normal takes a while to get adjusted to,” Carlston said.

What’s next?

OSU will play its penultimate home regular season game on Saturday when it hosts rival Michigan in St. John Arena at 7 p.m. The teams met just over two weeks ago, with the Buckeyes coming out on top in a hard-fought, five-set match.