Volleyball readies for taller Illinois

by Ben Goessling

Take a quick look down Illinois’ volleyball team’s roster, and your eye can’t help but drift to the height column.

And once it’s there, your jaw can’t help but drop.

The Illini feature four middle blockers measuring 6-foot-3 or taller and have three more players standing 6-foot-1. Only three players on Illinois’ roster do not top six feet.

Needless to say, Minnesota coach Mike Hebert isn’t terribly excited about the prospect of facing the Illini on Saturday night at the Sports Pavilion.

“They are easily the tallest team in the conference, and they can put out a lineup that is gigantic,” Hebert said. “I’ve been ranking them in the top 25 every week.”

Hebert’s trepidation comes primarily from the fact his team will be staring down – or perhaps up at – a team whose front line bears an uncanny resemblance to the Chicago skyline.

Six-foot-5 junior Lisa Argabright, a first-team, all-conference pick last season, is the centerpiece of Illinois’ towering lineup. Argabright is flanked by 6-foot-4 sophomore Jessica Belter and 6-foot-1 senior Sue Webber.

If Illinois coach Don Hardin really wants to make things rough on the sixth-ranked Gophers (17-2, 4-0 Big Ten), he can plug in junior Shelly O’Bryan or freshman Rachel VanMeter, both of whom stand 6-foot-3.

But for whatever reason, the Illini’s height hasn’t translated into huge dividends on the court this year. Picked 19th nationally in the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s preseason poll after a 21-9 campaign in 2001, Illinois stumbled to three non-conference losses and opened the Big Ten season with a five-game loss to perennial doormat Northwestern.

The Illini (8-5, 2-2) received 24 votes in this week’s top 25 poll.

Gophers middle blocker Bethany Brafford acknowledged Illinois presents a challenge for Minnesota’s front line but thinks the Gophers have an advantage.

“We just have to hit the seams,” she said. “They don’t seem very quick, and we can use our speed against them.”

The 6-foot-2 Brafford said she can’t remember the Illini ever dominating the Gophers with their size in her two previous years.

Aside from facing an abnormally tall team, Minnesota is in another unusual spot this weekend.

This marks the first weekend since the Florida Atlantic Tournament on Aug. 30-31 the Gophers haven’t played a ranked team, but Hebert said Minnesota’s matches against Purdue on Friday night and Illinois on Saturday night give the team a unique test.

Minnesota has played nine ranked teams this season, tying it with UCLA for the most in the country. The Gophers have gone 7-2 against ranked opponents, but Hebert hopes his team will fare as well without the motivation of a big match in its corner.

“If we played Illinois a month ago, it wouldn’t have been an upset if they beat us,” Hebert said. “We’ve been getting up for these big matches, but we just have to take care of business this weekend.”