Illinois trending in right direction after rough start

Nov. 1—CHAMPAIGN — The month of October can make or break a volleyball season in the Big Ten. It's the time of year where teams can distinguish themselves in conference play and build a formidable NCAA tournament résumé.

Or not.

The less ideal alternative is struggling enough through October to secure a spot in the bottom half of the league and then simply play out the string in November.

Illinois was looking at a fate closer to the latter through the first half of October. Three consecutive losses to Purdue, Wisconsin and Ohio State had the Illini 7-10 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten with exactly zero signature wins and an RPI in the 100s.

Chris Tamas challenged his team after the four-set loss the Buckeyes in Columbus, Ohio, to be "one contact better." The margin for error in the Big Ten is razor thin. Turning three to four points could be enough to flip a loss into a win.

Or five.

Illinois enters November and an 8 p.m. Wednesday showdown with Northwestern at Huff Hall on a five-match winning streak. Five absolutely needed wins, including the team's first upset of a top-25 team in a year with Saturday's four-setter against then-No. 16 (and now-No. 19) Purdue.

It hasn't completely changed the dynamic of the season. Illinois' RPI rates 83rd nationally and its résumé could use another notable win or two.

But the Illini (12-10, 7-5 Big Ten) were able to flip October into a positive and at least give themselves a chance with eight matches to play.

"This time of year you're trying to separate yourself from everybody else in the conference," Tamas said. Illinois is currently fifth in the Big Ten standings with two of its remaining eight matches (at Wisconsin and at Nebraska) against teams currently slotted higher.

"You're trying to be in that top five and be in the conversation for the committee to make a decision," Tamas continued. "We've definitely been trending up the last several weeks. ... Every year, it's always this way. October always seems to give you your separator. You're either trending up, trending down or somewhere in between."

Illinois is trending up, but not without some struggles. The Illini went 5-5 through their nonconference schedule for a second straight season and were swept three times by ranked Big Ten opponents in their first seven conference matches.

Making it through that stretch and to the point where a five-match winning streak was possible took some hope and some trust that the daily work at Huff Hall would start yielding better results.

"I think we trusted that we would get out of it," redshirt freshman middle blocker Cari Bohm said. "We didn't feel like it was a forever thing. I think it's hard, but with the group we have, it made it easier than it would otherwise."

There hasn't been one major improvement to spark a five-match winning streak after a 2-5 start to Big Ten play. But better first contact in serve-receive has made a difference. So has being mindful of the difference between an aggressive serve and an effective one and taking good swings in the attack when the opportunity is there.

"I just felt that everyone kind of released putting pressure on themselves a little bit," Tamas said. "We reminded them they just had to make a ton of really good plays and not really spectacular ones. ... It was just a combination of everyone stepping up and taking control and kind of taking ownership of their position and their craft."

Trusting the process meant trusting that even slight, day-to-day improvements would pay off when it mattered in matches. While there were no drastic changes, fifth-year outside hitter Jess Nunge said the results of that daily work were evident in how the team interacted on the practice court and in matches.

"Just the way we interact after a mistake is made or after a really good point, we all come together no matter what," Nunge said. "I think that we all have adopted this mentality of all-out effort for each other and building a trust on the court that we can do our own jobs and we can help our teammates out."

Bohm said the real feeling that the tide had turned came last week in home wins against Indiana and Purdue. Both teams beat Illinois earlier in the season, with the Hoosiers winning in four sets in the Big Ten opener and the Boilermakers doing so with a sweep.

Illinois countered with a five-set win against Indiana and a four-setter against Purdue to extend its winning streak. Improved first touch made all the difference.

"The first two times we played them, it was a lot of free balls and a lot of freebies we were giving them," Tamas said. "We maybe weren't getting aced, but we were in scramble mode a lot. Against them these last two matches, we were able to put some good swings together and keep the ball off the floor.

"It was really just about challenging them to be better in what they're doing and keep pointing out kind of the big picture items that can help turn a few points. We've been doing that the past couple weeks."