Blair Brown and the rest of the Nittany Lions women’s volleyball team know that on any given night in the Big Ten, any team can win and any team can lose.
On Friday night, No. 2 Penn State lost.
No. 9 Illinois knocked off the Lions, 3-2 (17-25, 25-14, 25-19, 14-25, 17-15), snapping Penn State’s string of 65-consecutive conference wins that dated back to Nov. 11, 2006. The Lions forced the Fighting Illini to a fifth set and even had match point at 14-13, but failed to close it out and fell, 17-15.
A kill by Illinois outside hitter Laura DeBruler and a hitting error by Brown ended the hard-fought, five-set thriller in front of a sold-out crowd of 4,141 at Huff Hall in Champaign, Ill., the third-largest turnout for a volleyball game in the building’s history.
“It definitely kind of showed us that we can’t let up,” said Brown, a senior co-captain and opposite hitter. “I think that we played well the rest of the time. We just really needed to finish it when we could.”
Penn State coach Russ Rose said he was not disappointed with the loss, but in the way the Lions were defeated. Rose pointed to the fact that some of Illinois’ veteran players outplayed Penn State’s more experienced players, aside from Lions middle hitter Arielle Wilson, who tallied a .536 hitting percentage in the loss.
“We had an opportunity to win and we had swings at it in the fifth game and it just wasn’t meant to be,” Rose said.
The last time Penn State lost a conference game was when the then-No. 3 Lions were swept by then-No. 23 Ohio State in Columbus on Nov 8. 2006. Penn State, winners of seven-straight Big Ten titles, had defeated Illinois 13 times in a row before Friday night.
The Lions have rolled through their Big Ten slate since then, posting conference records of 20-0 in each of the last three seasons while dropping only 11 sets.
In fact, the Lions dropped two sets in a single match only three times in their last three national championship seasons.
However, with a younger and less experienced starting lineup, this season already has a different complexion.
The Big Ten is historically one of, if not the toughest conference in collegiate women’s volleyball. And this weekend, Penn State wasn’t the only school to get upset. No. 14 Minnesota — which the coaches voted to finish third in the conference’s pre-season poll — lost to No. 22 Michigan on Saturday night, also in a five-set contest.
“Every game in the Big Ten is going to be tough competition on the road for us and at home,” senior co-captain and libero Alyssa D’Errico said. “It’s just a very talented conference across the board.”
Though Penn State (11-2, 1-1 Big Ten) bounced back with a sweep of Wisconsin (11-2, 0-2) on the road Sunday afternoon, the Lions know many tough conference battles lie on the road ahead.
The Lions hope to learn from their loss to Illinois as they look forward to their Big Ten home opener against Michigan State on Friday night at Rec Hall.
Penn State, which will likely drop in Monday’s AVCA rankings, will also host Michigan on Saturday night.
“It’s any given night in the Big Ten,” Brown said. “Anybody can beat anybody else. I just think you have to go in to every game ready.”