VB Comes Out Flat, Falls to Illini 3-2

VB Comes Out Flat, Falls to Illini 3-2

The Big Ten is clearly the premier conference in volleyball right now, especially if we imagine it as a reasonable 12-team conference rather than the monstrosity Jim Delany has forced upon us. So it was to be expected that Purdue would face a strong challenge once conference play began: with the same coaches' poll that put the Boilers 10th also placing Nebraska, Minnesota, and Wisconsin 1-2-3 (see also Purdue's schedule the next two weeks, with Iowa added to that list), it was clear that the Boilers would drop some matches. What wasn't clear was that their first conference loss would also be their first conference match.

In yet another uncomfortably hot evening in Holloway (that decision to be penny-wise sure looks pound-foolish right now, Mr. Former Athletic Director), the Boilers opened conference play on a Wednesday because TV, facing an Illinois squad with less than its usual contingent of fans because Delany (it's no longer feasible to schedule solely by traveling partners, so it's Illinois and Indiana this week instead of Illinois and Northwestern, and thus even Champaign to West Lafayette is difficult on a weeknight), so that there were, in fact, empty seats: listed attendance was 1,965, a couple hundred under capacity. The Good Gals took the first set with a bit of difficulty, but then dropped the next two, managed to hang on and force a fifth set, but struggled in that as well, falling to 0-1 in conference play and 10-2 overall. (Also, Purdue is now 0-2 in five-set matches at home and 10-0 in all other matches.) Massey bumped the Boilers down five spots to #14; that leaves them fifth in the conference behind the big three above and Michigan State, who's at 13 in Massey and #20 in AVCA.

Illinois 3, Purdue 2 (25-21, 20-25, 23-25, 27-25, 11-15)

No real lineup changes from previous matches. The one difference off the bench was that Linnea Rohrsen played in all five sets.

Yep, the substitution worked. If I served an ace on TV, you better believe I'd be jumping.

While the Boilers did lead most of the way in the first set, they didn't take their first lead until 4-3, and even so, it was tied as late as 15-15 (in fact, I believe the fourth set was the first one that did not require a media timeout). Timing was clearly off, as attack after attack was offline, easily into a block, or into the net. The biggest lead the Boilers had in the first half was 9-6 after a Carissa Damler ace; the next point was a Naya Crittenden kill, and Michelle Strizak would put the next point down to bring Illinois back within one. The Boilers ran off three straight following the 15-15 tie, and after an Illinois timeout and a Katie Stadick kill, an Ashley Evans kill and a Strizak error put Purdue up 4; Illinois used its other timeout after the sides traded points, but the Illini could not get closer than two, and after a Strizak service error, the sides traded points the rest of the way, closing the match on an Azariah Stahl kill.

The second set was the one that really highlighted Purdue's problems on Wednesday. After conceding the first point, kills by Danielle Cuttino and Blake Mohler put the Boilers up 2-1. Illinois responded with four straight points, and Purdue would not lead again. At 5-6, a Brooke Peters service error started a 3-point Illinois run, and the Illini slowly extended their lead until an Ali Bastianelli/Jordyn Poulter block of Mohler put the Boilers down 12-17 and drew their first timeout. (The boxscore is wrong here: the timeout at 11-15 was a media timeout, not a Purdue timeout.) The Good Gals responded with four straight points, each on an attack error by Jacqueline Quade (two Mohler/Sherridan Atkinson blocks and two unforced errors), the last one after an Illinois timeout, but the Illini held off four straight Purdue attempts to tie, and after the Boilers' second timeout at 19-22, Purdue got its final point on a Brandi Donnelly service error. Illinois would close the set with kills by Crittenden and Strizak and a Bastianelli/Poulter block of Stahl. Suddenly, it was 1-1, and the team that looked like a top-5 team in blowing Kansas off the court was letting unranked Illinois hang around much longer than anyone thought they would.

Purdue has had its problems with playing down to the level of its weaker opponents; Wednesday night, for two sets, they played almost exactly at Illinois' level. Set three featured 15 ties and 7 lead changes, and let's just say that we're all thankful for rally scoring, because otherwise they might still be playing the third set. Time and time again, the Boilers would force a side out and then fail to score on their own serve (Illinois' sideout percentage was over 60% in four of the five sets and 50% in set 4); Illinois made plenty of mistakes, but Purdue simply couldn't stop their own. 11-11 tie: Illinois kill on their own serve. 12-12: Stahl service error. Up 15-14 at the media timeout, Purdue conceded three straight before calling a timeout at 15-17; at 16-18, the Boilers made it 19-18 and forced an Illinois timeout. The Illini scored three of the next four to go up 20-21, and Purdue did not score on their own serve the rest of the set. At 23-23, an Atkinson error and a Quade kill put the final two points in Illinois' column, and now the Boilers were down 1-2 and facing yet another deficit at home.

Set four was just about equally in doubt, with 13 ties, 6 lead changes, and surprisingly, no match points for Illinois. The Illini had an early 1-3 lead, but the Boilers quickly answered, and up until 8-8 it looked like a repeat of set 3 ... then the runs began. Three straight from Purdue, 11-8 Boilers, timeout Illinois. Four straight from the Illini around a Purdue timeout, 11-12 Illini. Three straight from Purdue, 14-12. Six straight for Illinois around the other timeout, 14-18. At that point, the sides began trading points, and it looked like the visitors would wrap this up early, but at 17-21, a Poulter service error gave Purdue the opening they needed. With Evans at the service line, the scoring went Cuttino kill, timeout Illini, Cuttino kill, Stadick error, Atkinson kill, Crittenden error, and suddenly the Boilers were up 23-21 and set five loomed. Two Illinois points evened it at 23; a Strizak error gave Purdue set point #1. A Peters service error tied it at 24; Stahl put the Boilers up 25-24, set point #2. Crittenden tied it at 25; Atkinson and Faye Adelaja stuffed Strizak, and Adelaja would cash in set point #3, dropping an Evans set to even the match at 2-2.

OK, Blake, if you're concerned, I'm really concerned. Does this turn out poorly for Purdue?

The fifth set was not good. Of Illinois' 15 points, only 4 came on Illini kills: two more were aces, 7 were courtesy of blocks, and the last two were unforced errors. The Boilers recorded 8 kills in the final set - 4 from Cuttino (including 3 straight Boiler points), 3 from Stahl and 1 from Adelaja - but too many points found them in disarray, unable to capitalize on golden opportunities. When Stahl's final attack found Bastianelli and Poulter, what remained of the crowd filtered out quietly.

moar middle plz

Adelaja had another outstanding night, tying Cuttino with 14 kills and hitting a whopping .591 on 22 attacks - since the Boilers hit .206 as a team, you can see what's coming. Cuttino hit just .095, Stahl .086 with 13 kills; Atkinson added 10 at .172, and Evans had 7 at .417, but when your two top-volume hitters are under .100, it's going to be a long night. Natalie Haben led everyone with 15 digs (Stahl added 14 for another double-double), and Azariah also tallied two solo blocks (she and Mohler had three total apiece). It was Illinois' box score from end to end, as the Illini outhit Purdue .221 to .206, outblocked them 14 to 11, and ... well, under-errored them at the service line, -3 (7 aces/10 errors) to -5 (4 aces/9 errors).

Illinois was led by OPP Naya Crittenden, who hit .357 and led all players with 15 kills. OH Jacqueline Quade and OH Michelle Strizak add 13 apiece (.212 for Quade, .089 for Strizak). DS Danielle Davis and L Brandi Donnelly had 13 digs each; Davis was the only player on either team to serve 2 aces. MB Ali Bastianelli dominated the net, getting credit for 10 block assists and one solo to account for 6 of Illinois' 14 total blocks. 

Overall thoughts

This looked more like a season opener than a conference opener: between bad passes, bad sets, bad attacks, and bad communication, there wasn't one part of the Boilers' game that looked like what we saw against Kansas and Xavier. Until late in the fourth set, there were repeated occasions where a ball would fall between Boilers or would find a spot on the court where someone should have been and was not there. Over and over again, Crittenden would fire a left-handed kill around a block that was seemingly set up to stop a right-handed shot. (Note: Crittenden, still a lefty.) 

Peters had three service errors, and if I'm not mistaken, her frustration at her performance reached a point where Shondell took her out for a couple of points to get her to unwind a bit. (The box score doesn't reflect this.) She was by no means the only Boiler to play at less than her best: there wasn't a single player who seemed to be hitting on all cylinders. Adelaja's serve was even wilder than it normally is; Damler uncharacteristically had two service errors; etc. etc. It's entirely possible that some or most of this is the direct result of a midweek match, with this being not just the first match that wasn't Friday or Saturday, but also a match on a school day with school tomorrow. The Good Gals won't play on a Wednesday again until they host Maryland on November 2, but the schedule cranks up its difficulty to 11 starting a week from today, with #3 Wisconsin and #2 Minnesota coming to town, so let's hope the Boilers got most of their mistakes out of the way against Illinois.

We sat next to four older Illinois fans who make the trip out every year. Oddly, they looked a little perplexed when we told them they were sitting in our seats; you'd think they'd be aware it was a reserved section, but I guess not - they seemed to look at their tickets as if seeing the numbers for the first time. (Look, lady, I've had these seats for four years. I guarantee that you don't have them.) They were nice enough folks, though, and we chatted for a bit as we waited for the match to get started. Apparently Huff Hall also does not have air conditioning, so they too were used to the heat (well, somewhat; the gentleman next to me disappeared during the second set and did not come back). I wished them well after the match, the closest man to me did the same and shook my hand, and I told them I hoped they'd be back next year. I'm fine with visiting fans like that. (The lady behind me who was yelling after every Illini point - and a few Purdue points as well, which I suppose means she's either somewhat new to the sport or just not observant - well, good for you for making the trip, I guess.)

The atmosphere was noticeably different without the Illinois students who generally make the trip. The Illini didn't play here in 2014 (#ThanksDelany), so that's two out of three seasons without a key component in the rivalry. Sometimes more exposure for the non-revenue sports is a good thing; sometimes it's not.

Next up

It would be that thar team from that city down south. The Boilers welcome arch-rival Indiana to the confines of Mackey Arena Saturday. Oh, you thought you'd be playing for the Monon Spike in Holloway? Think again! Purdue hasn't lost to Indiana in West Lafayette since 2009, winning the last six straight at home and seven straight overall. They've also put eight straight Ps on the Spike, dating back to a four-set loss to Indiana in 2007 when you played to 30 in a set. Indiana is off to a decent start this season, at 12-2, but it's entirely due to strength of schedule: they've played just three teams in Massey's top 100 and are 1-2 against them. Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, that is changing right now: while they did beat Northwestern 3-1 Wednesday, their next four opponents are top-10 AVCA teams, as they'll flip Purdue's next four opponents (meaning Minnesota/Wisconsin next weekend and Nebraska/Iowa after that).

Indiana is led by senior OH Allison Hammond (179 kills at .271); freshman MB Hayden Huybers leads the Hoosiers with a .465 hitting percentage on 99 attacks. Senior S Megan Tallman is the only setter Purdue is likely to see, as she's got 502 of Indiana's 627 assists. On defense, a familiar face returns at libero, senior Taylor Lebo, who has a team-high 195 kills and 22 aces (although she's still -8 from the line). Senior MB Jazzmine McDonald paces the Hoosiers with 14 solo blocks and 30 block assists.

Let's compare numbers! MB Cuttino leads the Boilers with 180 kills at .275, followed closely by OH Stahl, who has 151 at .202. MB Adelaja is the team leader in hitting percentage, .448 on 145 attacks, which also leads the Big Tenteen and is currently 4th-best in Division I (Huybers doesn't have enough attacks to qualify for that leaderboard). S Evans has 507 of Purdue's 603 assists; L Haben has 164 digs, with Stahl in second place at 121. Evans also leads the Boilers with 13 aces and is +0 at the line; Haben leads the Boilers at +4 (12 aces/8 errors). Stahl and her amazing jumping ability leads Purdue with 14 solo blocks (she's 6'0"; McDonald is 6'2"), and MB Blake Mohler has a team-high 47 block assists.

Indiana's numbers look pretty good right now, but I'd expect them to drop significantly once conference play is well underway. Rivalries can add something to a match, but there is - or should be - simply too much of a gap between these teams for the Boilers to end up with anything less than a dominating win in front of a reasonably-full Mackey. (I'd guess 7,000. The Boilers drew 6,200 or so against Notre Dame last year.) Massey says 3-0, so let's roll with that. Keep the Spike where it belongs! Remember, when you spell Spike, P always comes before I.

Match time is 7 PM, so you'll have plenty of time to recover from the football game before this gets started. You can listen to it on WSHY 1410 AM as always, catch the audio for free online, or watch online if you shelled out the big bucks for BTN+. (There's also the CBSi GameTracker.)

Photos by John Underwood, courtesy of Purdue Athletics

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