Rutgers head on road for final time this season to face No. 4 Illinois, Northwestern
From playing at its best and its worst, the Rutgers volleyball team has taken itself on a rollercoaster ride this season and isn’t finished just yet.
The Scarlet Knights (6-21, 0-14) have their last two away games of the season this upcoming weekend, when they’ll fly out to take on No. 4 Illinois on Friday and Northwestern on Saturday.
“Good teams in this league bounce back,” said head coach CJ Werneke. “They’re always pushing forward. We tend to dwell a little bit too much.”
After coming off a solid weekend winning a set against nationally-ranked Purdue and Indiana, Rutgers fell right back into straight set losses against Iowa and then-No. 8 Nebraska last weekend.
The set win facing the Boilermakers marked the first time since 2015 that the Knights were able to capture a set against a nationally-ranked team. Rutgers had the chance to capture the entire match against Purdue, but the moment was too great for the Knights to capitalize on, ending in a 3-1 loss.
“I think sometimes we don’t make great decisions in those moments and good decisions as attackers and that costs us points,” Werneke said. “Those are so precious to come by that we can’t give them away as easily as we have been.”
Consistency has always been a huge focus for Rutgers since joining the Big Ten, but the Knights are still fighting their own battles and have a long way to go if they want to develop into a top-tier team that can take on their conference opponents.
And that all starts again this weekend in the state of Illinois.
“I think we’re taking steps,” Werneke said. “I think some of the things that have happened and have made us a little bit more competitive is we’re getting, maintaining and executing the game plan."
Rutgers is actually a nationally-ranked defensive team at No. 20 in the nation averaging 2.68 blocks per set after last weekend. But, the Knights need to begin to shift their attention away from simply defending the ball and attacking their opponents as well.
With a combined winning percentage of .652, the Big Ten is the highest scoring conference out of all Division I conferences in the country. A whopping seven Big Ten programs are in the top 25 of the latest AVCA poll, and nine Big Ten teams are nationally ranked in the NCAA RPI’s top 60.
“The Big Ten is just a grind,” Werneke said. “You’ve got to be consistent and right now, we’ve shown that we’re not a consistent team. We have to play at a consistently good level. We don’t have to play great, just good."
The Fighting Illini (22-3, 11-3) are undefeated over the last seven games, most recently defeating Ohio State, 3-1, and Maryland, 3-0.
With a .278 hitting percentage and averaging 14.38 kills per set, Illinois settles for 10th in the nation as one of the most aggressive attack departments in the Big Ten. Leading the attack is Ali Bastianelli, who ranks No. 14 with a .402 hitting percentage and No. 24 with 1.35 blocks per set.
The Wildcats (14-12, 4-10) haven’t been as successful as the Illini, but they are coming off of a win against the Buckeyes as well after making the same journey as Illinois out east. Currently, Northwestern is ranked No. 56 in the latest NCAA RPI.
Since joining the Big Ten in 2014, Rutgers has not won a single set against either opponent. As Werneke noted, the Knights only have to aim for consistently good plays, while still having the goal in mind to win.
Not every hit has to be perfectly executed. As long as the ball is kept alive and cleared to their opponent’s side, that’s all that really matters.
“When we’re great, we’re not great long enough, so let’s meet in the middle and be good because just playing consistent volleyball is enough. We don’t have to be great, but you can’t be bad," Werneke said.
For updates on the Rutgers volleyball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.