Rachel VanMeter finished fourth in the nation in kills per game (5.79)
The Illinois volleyball team had about as much adversity as one team could have during the season in 2005 that along the course of the season Head Coach Don Hardin refused to say "It can't get worse" because he was afraid another unfortunate injury or illness would bestow his club.
Through it all, though, the Illini managed several impressive performances and would end up just a win or two short of qualifying for their 18th NCAA Tournament. Illinois finished the season at 16-15, its 20th winning season in the past 23 years, which included a season-ending victory at Iowa.
No one player signified the overcoming adversity more than senior Rasa Virsilaite. Over the summer, she had surgery to help prevent a heart murmur. As a result, Virsilaite wasn't cleared to play front row until a week before the season started. She responded with a pair of double doubles to start the season (11 kills and 17 digs at Illinois State and 15 kills and 10 digs vs. Austin Peay). Then in the first round of the State Farm Illini Classic, Virsilaite broke her finger, which sidelined her three matches and required her to wear a protective splint the rest of the year.
Still the senior persevered, tallying 15 kills in a near upset of No. 10 Wisconsin in Madison. Shortly there after, Virsilaite suffered a torn meniscus, which slowed her down even more. On the next to last day of the season, she aggravated the tear further causing Hardin to plan to enter the final match of the year at Iowa without Virsilaite with a winning season in the balance. Not only did she play, but Virsilaite responded with her best performance of her collegiate career - a career-best 23 kills, 11 digs and an incredulous .442 hitting percentage. Virsilaite had surgery the following week.
"The doctors couldn't believe that she had played in that kind of shape," Hardin said. "For Rasa to not only perform, but to do so at as high of level as she did is just a testament to her drive and determination."
If there is one image that Illinois fans will take from the season, it was the swing of senior Rachel VanMeter. With the student section chanting VAN-METER, VAN-METER from either side of the court following each VanMeter kill, it's a wonder that the Spike Squad had any voice left.
VanMeter set the tone for what kind of season she would have with 39 kills in 79 swings and a .342 hitting percentage, a high mark for an outside hitter. Along the way VanMeter would
rank fourth in the nation in kills per game (5.79)
be one of five players to be named unanimous All-Big Ten
earn Two-time Big Ten Player of the Week honors
earn her third straight Academic All-Big Ten accolade
be named MVP of the Northern Illinois Tournament and to the All-Tournament team at UNLV
Set school records for most attacks in a game (99), season (1786), and career (4462)
Post the second-best kills season in school history (672)
with 39 kills vs. Purdue and Illinois State, become just the second player in Illinois history to have two matches with over 35 kills in a match
finish her career fifth on Illinois' all-time kills list with 1,662.
With three key players forced to leave the team for separate personal issues early in the year, the Illini had to shuffle the line-up most of the year. Freshman Rachel Henderson, a converted middle blocker, played much of the first half of the year in the back row. That is until she caught mononucleosis in late September, forcing her to miss eight matches.
On October 7, the Illini turned over the setting duties to freshman Lizzie Bazzetta. Illinois already entered the season minus two of its mainstays in the back row from 2004 in Kathleen Bazzetta and Lauren Harks. Throw in all the injuries and it took nearly the entire season to fully make the transition.
Still by the end of the year, Hardin and the rest of the coaching staff were talking about the inspired and impressive play of Beth Vrdsky. The junior libero set the Illinois' single-season digs record with 520 and earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after back-to-back wins over Purdue and Indiana the final home week of the season.
Vrdsky had 31 digs vs. Purdue, then 15 in a straight games victory over Indiana (30-27, 30-23, 30-24). She helped the Fighting Illini hold the Boilermakers to a .182 hitting percentage and Indiana to just .153. She has ranked eighth in the Big Ten at 4.44 digs per game. Her 36 digs vs. Eastern Illinois on Sept. 16 were the fifth most in the Big Ten.
The back row play rubbed off on the rest of the team as a defensive assault keyed the season-ending victory over Iowa. In the final two weeks of the season, the Illini had its two best digs matches of the year with 81 against Purdue, then 92 in a four-game win over Iowa. Four Illinois players reached double digits in digs that night - 14 from junior Stephanie Obermeier, 20 from Bazzetta, 11 from Virsilaite, and 29 from Vrdsky.
Success against ranked teams continues
Illinois suffered through a disappointing 2-8 first half of the Big Ten, but rebounded to go 5-5 during the second half. It almost was 6-4 as the Illini nearly upset No. 10 Wisconsin - in Madison. The Badgers won 30-22, 23-30, 30-24, 26-30, 15-12. VanMeter had 27 kills and 11 digs and four players reached double digits.
"I have mixed emotions," said Illinois Head Coach Don Hardin afterward. "We had a chance for a huge national upset tonight. On the other hand we're playing better volleyball and played right with the No. 10 ranked team in the nation."
The Illini did defeat two ranked opponents on the year - one an improbable comeback against No. 16 Ohio State in Columbus. The Illini lost the first two games and trailed 22-18 in the third game before rebounding to take the final three games 32-30, 30-24, 20-18. Middles were key to this victory. Vicki Brown recorded a career-high 16 kills, while Meghan Macdonald added 14 kills and sophomore outside hitter Kayani Turner had 18. VanMeter paced the team with 25 kills. Perfect passing, few errors, and ferocious pressure against the net were some of the other factors in winning games three, four, and five.
Vrdsy and VanMeter's Big Ten Player of the Week performances highlighted a five-game victory over No. 18 Purdue late in the year. VanMeter tied her career high with 39 kills and set a new school record with 99
"It's nice to go down in history, but I'm more excited about the win to tell you the truth," VanMeter said. "I just focused on jumping as high I could, hitting the ball as hard as I could, and finding a way to get the kill."
"Just to set her nearly 100 balls is remarkable," Hardin said. "That's a lot of jumps and swings. It just shows her stamina and physical toughness."
Vrdsky, meanwhile had 31 digs in the victory.
Give me five
Another lasting part of the season was the number of five-game matches the Illini played and the success with which they had in those deciding games. All told, Illinois played nine five-game matches, going 6-3 in those matches, including wins over Ohio State and Purdue and at Michigan State.