By MARLON SCOTT | Senior Staff Writer

The Lady Govs volleyball team had 26 wins under their belt before they travelled to Champaign, Ill., to play in the first round of the 2010 NCAA Volleyball Championship Saturday, Dec. 4. Nervous, excited and determined are probably just a few of the many emotions that swirled through the players’ minds as they donned their APSU red road uniforms and then walked on to the court in Huff Hall surrounded by a legion of people wearing Illini orange.

For three sets, the Lady Govs played to extend their remarkable season against the eighth ranked fighting Illini. However, despite their best efforts, the Lady Govs could not put together the pieces to defeat Illinois. The Lady Govs were swept 3-0 (19-25, 19-25 and 19-25) by the Illini.

According to APSU Sports Information, Lady Govs head coach Haley Janicek was proud of her team’s play against Illinois.

“Our girls showed a lot of tenacity out there, and they fought hard against a really good team,” Janicek said. “Illinois just outplayed us at certain times in the match, but all season long we talked about our girls getting better up until the very last game. They did that again and got better today.”

The Lady Govs play impressed their opponents.

“I really enjoy watching Austin Peay play,” said Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly. “I just think they played hard. They play great defense and were really scrappy. They do a lot of smart things and it was not fun to play against, but I enjoyed watching them play.”

Those who did not know Illinois was ranked eighth and had made the Sweet 16 11 times may have assumed the Lady Govs were the underdogs because of their size when the two teams took the court. However, Lady Gov senior Sarah Alisaleh was not intimidated by the Illinis’ greater size.

“Everyone is going to look and think we are really short compared to the other team, but what we always have to focus on is ourselves,” Alisaleh said. “We just need to focus on our side of the court, and not the other team or the jersey or how big they are. As long as we play our game, then we are going to do well.”

In their first NCAA appearance in program history, the Lady Govs kept the sets close. Illinois had their hands full as they battled through 16 ties and nine lead changes in the match. Each set came down to a key three-to-four point run. Illinois’ Colleen Ward was a difference maker with 17 kills.

Lady Gov junior Ilyanna Hernandez led the team with 10 kills. Redshirt sophomore Nikki Doyle and senior Jessica Mollman both added eight kills. Defensively, junior Paige Economos led the team with 22 digs.

After the Illini scored the first point of the match, the two teams battled to seven early ties in the first set. Tied 8-8, it was the Lady Govs who flinched first. The Illini went on a 4-0 run; the last two points were aces by Illinois sophomore Jackie Wolfe. Later, an ace by Economos cut the Illini lead to two, 15-17, but errors and a strong Illini defense kept the Lady Govs from closing the gap completely. Ward put the first set away with a kill followed by a serving ace. Illinois served five aces in the first set.

The Lady Govs serving improved in the second set. Both Economos and junior Kayla Grantham served aces early, but the rest of the set unfolded like the first. The two teams tied for the fifth time in the set at 11-11. This time, it was a 5-1 Illini run that took over the game. The Illini defense had an answer for the Lady Govs offensive attempts to catch up. Ward closed the second set more definitively than the first, scoring the last five Illini points with four kills and another ace. The Lady Govs went into the intermission after the second set down 2-0 but still positive.

“Our passing actually struggled a little bit more in game two, but as the game went on, we got better at attacking the ball out of system,” Janicek said. “We got a lot of kills out of system in game two, so that was something that helped us.”

Proof of the team’s positivity was evident in the effort the Lady Govs showed when they opened the third set. Down 1-2, they went on a 4-0 run to take an early 5-2 lead. The Lady Govs maintained the lead and forced Illinois to take a time out to slow their momentum when they went on another run and reached the score 8-4.

The timeout paid off for the Illini. Afterwards, they battered the Lady Govs on a 9-2 run to take a 13-10 lead. However, unlike the two previous sets, the Lady Govs were not done at this point. Grantham sparked the team when she went to the service line. Down 14-18, Grantham’s serve helped the Lady Govs score four straight points and tie the game 18-18.

The Illinois’ defense that held the Lady Govs at bay in the first two sets, inevitably resurfaced. The Lady Govs lost points on five attack errors, three of which were into blocks involving the hands of 6’1” Illinois senior, Johannah Bangert. Bangert had seven block assists in the match.

While the Lady Govs scored only one more point to reach 19 for the third set in a row, the Illini closed the game, ending their last 7-1 run with an ace for the third set in a row.

Janicek talked about the dramatic third set.

“There is no denying that we were the underdog walking into that match. After the timeout, our girls realized the situation we were in,” Janicek said. “We had three seniors out there that were playing very possibly their last match ever, and they did what they wanted to do. They left their hearts out there on the court.” TAS