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Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Updated: December 14, 10:46 AM ET
Illinois plays intimidating style

By Mick Elliott

Go ahead. Try to find a weakness in a team that has talent, size, agility and the defensive consistency of a rock wall. Look closely for a chink in the Illinois volleyball team's armor.

It's not All-American senior outside hitters Colleen Ward and Michelle Bartsch, both among the Big Ten leaders in kills. It's not size; led by 6-foot-6 freshman Liz McMahon, 10 Illini stand 6-1 or taller. And it certainly isn't a lack of agility, not with junior setting machine Annie Luhrsen, third in the powerful Big Ten in assists, seven times delivering 50 or more in a game, and sophomore libero Jennifer Beltran, already holding a school dig record.

"We had no answers," Florida coach Mary Wise said after the 31-4 Illini dispatched the Gators in four sets to advance to this week's national semifinals in San Antonio.

Colleen Ward
Colleen Ward, most outstanding player of the regional, had 23 kills in 42 swings against Florida.

Now it's USC's turn to scratch its collective head as the 30-4 Women of Troy prepare for Thursday's national semifinal: How do you get from Point A to Point B if you can't go around Illinois?

The Illini spent a month earlier this season ranked No. 1 in the nation and began tournament play as the No. 3 seed. They are riding a seven-match win streak, with 10 victories in their last 11 outings.

"I'm proud of my team," Ward said. "I'm excited. This is where we wanted to be in the beginning of the season; [it's] just awesome that we got there."

The major part of Illinois muscle starts with a couple of unlikely suspects.

"I think we are two of the least-intimidating people you'll ever meet if you know us personally," the 6-3 Bartsch said, speaking for herself and 6-2 Ward.

Both women have the wholesome, unassuming faces of holiday carolers. Tall with gangly limbs and schoolgirl features, they appear unlikely to inflict pain and destruction on others.

"But I do like to think we're intimidating to the other team," Bartsch said.

There is a trail of bloody lips and smashed noses and a couple of concussions to support her claim.

"Yeah, except one of the concussions was a teammate, unfortunately," Bartsch said, recalling an especially active practice.

As coaches like to preach: You play like you practice.

The kill shot in volleyball might be equated to dunking over a defender or a bone-rattling quarterback sack in the way it can change momentum. Illinois coach Kevin Hambly isn't sure he totally agrees, but he admits few things are more comforting than the dependability of a signature big hit.

"I'm not sure you can compare volleyball to other sports, I've tried," Hambly said. "But there are times when we call a timeout and it's 24-23 and the other team is going to know it's coming to Michelle or Colleen, and we tell them, 'It's time for you to put a ball away.'

"We try to get them the best situation, and they've got to give it their best shot right now. And they have the ability to do that."

Illinois had hitting percentages of .455, .394 and .514 in the final three sets against Florida, essentially overpowering the Gators at the net. At the center of the attack was the regional's most outstanding player Ward, with 23 kills in 42 swings. Ward was especially impressive in the final set, where she had nine kills in nine swings.

"We've got five or six big hitters," Hambly said. "But I think we are fortunate to have two senior All-Americans on the outsides. I don't think a lot of programs have that.

"Our outside hitters are unique. What they do is erase a lot of mistakes a lot of times with ball control. If we are not passing our best, we can still have an opportunity to win rallies."

Supporting Ward, Bartsch had 30 kills and 17 digs for the regional, including 12 kills and nine digs against Florida. Beltran tied an Illinois NCAA-match record with 26 digs in the regional semifinal against Ohio State on Friday and added 13 digs against Florida.

There's just so many ways Illinois can score.

"That's something we've been working on the entire season," Bartsch said. "And it's actually happening now. I'm working really hard to make different shots."

This is the fourth consecutive year the Illini have played in the postseason, but the first time they have reached the semifinals in 23 years.

"It's a whole different feel," Bartsch said. "A different group of girls. We're really a tough team. And we're going to face adversity and know that. I think we play really well with toughness."