By Phil Brozynski
The NCAA Division I Women's Volleyball Sweet Sixteen - which resumes play Friday, December 12 with eight regional semifinals - features a number of teams led by Illinois-bred players.
Chief among the teams with a Land of Lincoln flavor is No. 8 Illinois (26-7), which plays California (25-6) Friday at 3:30 p.m. E.T. in State College, Pa. The Illini, one of four Big Ten teams in the regional semifinals, are led by Downers Grove North product Laura DeBruler.
Setters Hillary Haen (Prairie Ridge) and Lizzie Bazetta (Naperville North) and middle Abby Nelson (Marist) are also among the Illini stalwarts who will try to earn a berth opposite unbeaten Penn State in Saturday's 4:00 p.m. E.T. regional final.
Other Illinois products on the roster are Michelle Bartsch (Collinsville), Catherine Culligan (St. Francis), Nicole Kump (Joliet Catholic), Rachel Feldman (Normal) and Clinton products Kristine Anderson and Kylie McCulley.
Western Michigan (29-5) faces the unenviable task of taking on the Nittany Lions in Friday's regional semifinals. Penn State is the overall No. 1 seed in the field and boasts a 34-0 record. But Western Michigan won't be intimidated.
That's because the Broncos feature five Illinois products in junior libero Caitlin Strimel (Mother McAuley), junior setter Jillian Mitchell (Downers Grove South), sophomore middle Jaime Gotham (Glenbard East), sophomore outside Kate Corbett (McAuley) and junior outside Katie Eberling (Stagg).
In the lower half of the bracket, No. 19 Michigan (26-8) will face powerhouse Nebraska (29-2) Friday in Seattle, Wash. The Wolverines upset No. 13-seed St. Louis behind senior Beth Karpiak (Lyons) and sophomore setter Lexi Zimmerman (Barrington).
On the other side of the bracket, UCLA (22-10) takes on Texas behind All-American setter Nellie Spicer (Barrington), and Florida (27-3) will battle Stanford (28-3) behind super freshmen Katie Murphy (Joliet Catholic) and Colleen Ward (Naperville North).
Speaking of Murphy, the Wilmington native was named the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Freshman of the Year. Murphy leads the Gators in kills (351) and is second in assists (595). Murphy was the Sun-Times Player of the Year in 2007.
Also on the awards front, Evansville setter Ellen Sawin (Lincoln-Way Central) was named to the Missouri Valley Conference's all-freshman team. Sawin was a third team Sun-Times all-area selection in 2007.
Illinois' women's volleyball program is reaping the benefits of its Sweet Sixteen run and national ranking, receiving a verbal commitment from 6-foot-1 junior outside hitter Jaz Orozco from Lakewood (Calif.).