Laura DeBruler key to Illini's success

The sold-out crowd at Huff Hall witnessed a remarkable performance when Illinois defeated Penn State last Friday night.

While the majority of the 4,141 fans were fixated on the five-set victory that snapped an 11-match losing streak against the Nittany Lions, a streak that began in 2003 before many in attendance had graduated from high school, the performance of senior outside hitter Laura DeBruler was even more amazing.

Less than three weeks before the match, DeBruler was sidelined with mononucleosis, the energy-sapping viral infection for which there is no effective treatment other than rest.

The diagnosis was made just after the team returned from a two-match trip to Texas in early September. During that three-set victory over the second-ranked Longhorns, DeBruler posted her usual numbers with 17 kills and 10 digs. The following day against Florida A&M, she had two kills and five digs while playing in two of three sets against the Rattlers.

It was obvious something was not right.

"We knew something had to be wrong," head coach Kevin Hambly said. "Laura was completely spent about halfway through the Texas match. Against Florida A&M, she didn't have any energy. She probably had it earlier than we thought. She was just in such great shape that it didn't show up."

Unfortunately for DeBruler, she was unable to play when Illinois travelled to Nebraska for matches against Western Michigan and No. 20 Dayton at the Coliseum and missed a showdown with the seventh-ranked Huskers at the Devaney Center.

"That was tough, missing the atmosphere and playing in front of 12,000 people," DeBruler said. "But I knew it was important that I didn't play. I tried to do what I could from the bench. Hopefully we'll see them later down the road and beat them when it counts."

The three matches at Nebraska was a coming-out party of sorts for freshman Jazmine Orozco, who had double-digit kills in all three contests, including a season-high 20 against the Huskers. But it's asking a lot of a first-year player to replace the experience and intangibles that a two-time All-American brings to the court.

"It's not just her attacking, because Jazmine did a good job of attacking and blocking," Hambly said. "It's Laura's passing and defensive leadership that we really missed. She's an incredible middle back defensive player. That's the thing she does that we can't replace. She's so good back there."

DeBruler's presence also was missed the following weekend when the Illini let a two-set lead slip away against Cincinnati at the Big Ten/Big East Challenge in Louisville, but no one in the program was going to risk a relapse with Penn State coming to Champaign the following week to open the Big Ten schedule.

DeBruler's imminent return ratcheted up the level of anticipation for the showdown between the conference's top teams, and the match lived up to the hype, especially in the fifth set.

The seven-time defending champion Nittany Lions took the first set, then Illinois roared back to take the next two. But the longer the match went on, the more the Illini coaches became concerned that DeBruler might run out of gas. She got some rest during the fourth set, and was back on the court when her team needed her the most.

DeBruler had four of her 11 kills during the fifth set, including the last two which gave the Illini a pair of one-point leads right before they won the match on a hitting error by the Nittany Lions.

"In that fifth set, it was as much will as it was conditioning," Hambly said. "She just wanted to win that match. There was nothing in the tank. I don't know how she pulled it out. It was just sheer will.

"Me and [setter] Hillary [Haen] looked at each other and said like, 'Hey, if we get a dig we're going to Laura. I don't care where she is.' I could just see that she was determined."

The following night, in a three-set victory against Ohio State, DeBruler had eight kills and nine digs. During Wednesday's comeback victory at Wisconsin, she broke the Illinois record for career kills with a season-high 26.

Those victories solidified Illinois' position as one of the favorites to not only win the Big Ten, but to challenge for the national championship.

That's an impressive turnaround considering where the program was when this year's seniors -- DeBruler, Haen, middle blocker Johannah Bangert and middle blocker/outside hitter Nicole Kump -- were being recruited. Illinois finished ninth in the Big Ten in 2006 and has moved up in the standings every season since.

"One of the reasons we all came here was to change the program around and be one of the top programs in the country," DeBruler said. "We've put a lot of hard work and effort into changing it around. It's been a long road, but we're finally getting the results that we wanted. It's a great feeling."

Three seniors have played a significant role in getting Illinois back toward the top. And if it weren't for their efforts, the Illini would have never been able to land a player like junior outside hitter Colleen Ward, who returned to her home state after two seasons at Florida.

"Colleen is playing great," Hambly said. "She's really gotten into our system and she's getting more comfortable every week. Having her puts us in the conversation [as a contender for the national championship]. We wouldn't have been in the conversation to win the conference and go to the Final Four without Colleen."

That became clear during DeBruler's five-match absence, when Ward averaged 5.3 kills and 5.6 points per set, and posted a .337 hitting percentage.

"On the court, she's putting up great numbers," DeBruler said. "Off the court, it's been like she's been here the entire time. Colleen has made our team even better than before. She's a great, great player."

One thing is clear: DeBruler and Ward give the Illini a one-two punch on the left side that few other teams can match.

"Colleen did a nice job of playing that role for us through the time when Laura was out," Hambly said. "She's led us in kills the last seven matches, and it's possible she could do that the rest of the year. Laura doesn't have to play as significant a role now that Colleen has stepped up, but I do think Laura will be our closer and our stabilizer."

That was exactly what happened against Penn State. Ward led the Illini with 16 kills, but with the match on the line in the fifth set, they went back to DeBruler for the clutch points.

And while the Illinois fans celebrated, all DeBruler wanted was to get some rest.

Around the nation

Team of the week: Duke won five-set matches on consecutive days to remain tied with No. 14 Florida State and North Carolina atop the Atlantic Coast Conference standings with a 3-0 league record. On Friday at Georgia Tech, the Blue Devils trailed two sets to one and 5-1 in the fifth set before posting a 26-28, 25-21, 18-25, 25-20, 18-16 victory. The following night at Clemson, the Duke went the distance again to record a 23-25, 25-22, 25-15, 24-26, 15-11 triumph at Jervey Gym. It marks the second season in a row the Blue Devils came from behind to beat the Yellow Jackets and Tigers on the road in back-to-back matches. Duke has now won four matches in a row against Georgia Tech -- all in five sets. Clemson and Georgia Tech visit Cameron Indoor Stadium on Oct. 29 and 30, respectively. The Blue Devils are 4-0 in five-set matches this season and currently are fourth among teams receiving votes in the latest American Volleyball Coaches Association Division I Coaches Poll.

Showdown in Gainesville: The two programs that have won at least a share of the SEC volleyball title every year since 1989 meet on Friday when No. 16 LSU visits No. 2 Florida. The defending champion Tigers are 13-0 for the first time in the program's history and are one of only five undefeated teams remaining in Division I. LSU has lost only one set during its first four conference matches and only seven of 46 sets played so far this season, but the Tigers have played only one team receiving votes in the latest AVCA top 25. On the other hand, Florida is 10-1 overall and owns a 7-1 record in matches played against nationally ranked opponents. Five of those victories occurred on the road, including wins at Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida State during the past two weeks. The Gators have climbed to No. 2 in the latest poll, their highest ranking since the final poll in 2003 when they lost in the national championship match. LSU won both matches against the Gators last year after Florida had won 26 in a row.

The week ahead: A make-or-break week for Texas started out on a positive note with a comeback five-set victory over No. 9 Iowa State on Wednesday at Gregory Gymnasium. The Longhorns jumped into a tie for second place in the Big 12 standings with Texas A&M and could create a virtual tie at the top with a win at No. 3 Nebraska on Saturday. The Pac-10 will feature four matches involving a pair of ranked teams on Friday and Saturday. No. 11 Oregon faces a daunting task with back-to-back matches at No. 8 Cal and No. 1 Stanford, while No. 10 Washington plays host to No. 5 USC and No. 12 UCLA. The three undefeated teams in the Big Ten will be in action on Saturday night when No. 19 Michigan visits No. 4 Penn State and No. 25 Northwestern travels to No. 7 Illinois.

Quick sets

Northwestern improved to 12-1 with victories over Indiana and Purdue, and cracked the top 25 for the first time since Oct. 6, 1987, when the Wildcats were No. 15. It marks the first time since 2002 Northwestern began conference play with a 2-0 victory. … San Diego State defeated New Mexico and TCU to begin its Mountain West Conference schedule 2-0 for the first time since 2002. … With 36 assists during a sweep of Iowa, senior setter Lexi Zimmerman became Michigan's career assist leader. She added 60 more during a five-set victory over then-No. 14 Minnesota to finish the weekend with 5,144. … Drake senior defensive specialist Alana Wittenburg became the fifth player in Missouri Valley Conference history to record 2,000 career digs when she had 17 during a three-set victory over Southern Illinois University. … Senior libero Tracey Lam collected career dig No. 2,000 with 20 during Rice's match against Southern Miss on Sept. 25. The Owls' career leader needs just 75 more to pass Cincinnati's Trish Ladusaw (2,074) for second place on the Conference USA all-time list. … Junior outside history Alex Jupiter became the 17th player in USC history to record 1,000 career kills with 21 during last Friday's victory over UCLA. Junior setter Kendall Bateman finished the match with 2,037 career assists and needs 508 more to pass Sue Peters for eighth place on the program's career list. … Junior outside hitter Lane Carico recorded career dig No. 1,000 during Miami's four-set victory over Virginia and became the first player in school history to record 1,000 career kills and digs. … Nevada senior outside hitter Kylie Harrington became the 10th player in school history to record 1,000 career kills with eight during last Monday's match at UNLV. With 29 assists against Hawaii, junior setter Tatiana Santiago became the 10th player at Nevada to reach 1,000 career assists.

Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.