Volleyball played its first two Big Ten matches this week and found a way to win both despite key players missing from its lineup.
The No. 11 Boilermakers (11-1, 2-0 Big Ten) swept No. 8 Minnesota (5-4, 0-1 Big Ten) on Friday without starting setter Megan Renner and beat Iowa (6-7, 0-2 Big Ten) 3-1 on Sunday without starting libero Maddie Schermerhorn.
On homecoming week, fifth-year setter Grace Balensiefer, a Lafayette native and McCutcheon High School graduate, made her first appearance as a Boilermaker in front of a sold-out crowd at Holloway Gymnasium. Balensiefer, who played her first four years at Northern Illinois, said she transferred to Purdue for her final year of eligibility “expecting to be a practice player.”
“I mean, that’s what I was recruited for,” she said. “I came in wanting to join a Big Ten program in my fifth year, and I was willing to do anything to come home. I knew I would have to fight like heck to get to go out on the floor, and I’m glad that I got the chance.”
Balensiefer tallied 41 assists in three sets and notched a kill for the penultimate point in the match. Head coach Dave Shondell credited the success of her performance to experience, the importance of which he’s repeatedly mentioned this season.
The team’s other fifth-year transfer, Hannah Clayton, brings four years of middle blocking experience to Purdue from Iowa, the Boilermakers’ Sunday opponent.
“I didn’t even anticipate what she would bring to our team,” Shondell said. “(She’s an) ideal teammate, encourages people all the time and (has) stepped into a leadership role. I can’t imagine anybody at Iowa wanted to see her go.”
Shondell has reiterated that the team’s defensive specialists were “a bright spot,” capable of setting up the offense with a good pass off the serve.
The Boilermakers’ back row was without Schermerhorn, who sustained an injury in a practice between the Friday and Sunday games according to the ESPN broadcast. In that time, Renner returned to the fold, contributing 15 assists in the Iowa match.
Sophomore Ali Hornung stepped up as the team’s libero on Sunday and recorded 20 digs and an ace. It’s the first time Hornung has played libero for the Boilermakers, but not the first time Purdue has had a Hornung at libero, as Ali’s sister Marissa also played at libero last season.
“I thought Hornung was off the charts,” Shondell said. “She was phenomenal in her game and looked like a pro out there.”
The other two defensive specialists, senior Ava Torrance and junior Emily Brown looked good too. Shondell said Torrance struggled with the serve but “bounced right back because she’s tough and a senior.”
Purdue’s depth extends to its outside hitters, which includes freshman Eva Hudson, who Shondell said is “the freight train driving this team right now.”
The other outside hitters, all seniors, are Emma Ellis, Madeline Koch and Maddy Chinn. Chinn, who had been out since Louisville on Sept. 9 with an ankle injury, returned in Friday’s match. She only had one kill that night, but Shondell recognized her attacks as “smart shots” that kept the Gophers on their heels and let Purdue back into sets it was down in.
“I don’t think you’re gonna come off an ankle injury as severe as hers was and be 100% right away, but she’s smart,” Shondell said. “That’s one thing about her, since she’s a cerebral player, it’s nice to have that in our depth.”
Renner returned to the court Sunday in Iowa where she contributed
The latest American Volleyball Coaches’ Association poll will be released Monday and will most likely feature current No. 11 Purdue in its top-10 after the wins against two conference opponents. Since suffering its first and only loss to top-5 Louisville in early September, Purdue has won every match.