Volleyball and soccer save Illinois from gloomy fall season

By Alex Roux

By mid-October, it was shaping up to be a rough fall season for Illinois athletics.

Football struggles aside, the Illini volleyball and soccer teams were limping through their schedules, both in danger of missing their respective NCAA tournaments. Soccer’s Jannelle Flaws was tearing up the Big Ten with a barrage of goals and Kevin Hambly’s volleyball team pulled an occasional upset, but both teams’ tournament résumés were dotted with ugly losses and sub-par performances. Both teams needed to get on hot streaks to salvage their seasons.

And that’s just what they did.

Needing a win in their last regular-season game to qualify for the Big Ten Tournament, Janet Rayfield’s soccer squad beat Minnesota 3-1 to secure its berth. Though the Illini fell in their first Big Ten tournament game to Indiana, qualifying for the Big Ten Tournament was enough for them to squeak into the NCAA tournament. The Illini then defeated Washington State in the first round on penalty kicks and are riding a wave of momentum into their second round Friday matchup with No. 7 Portland. Having won three of their last four games, the Illini have gotten hot at just the right time, winning with their season on the line. With Vanessa DiBernardo recently returning from injury, the Illini will have a shot against the Pilots on Friday.

Meanwhile, the Illinois volleyball team had been inconsistent through much of the season, seemingly unable to finish close matches. While they notched several quality wins over ranked opponents, the season was marred by late-set collapses to Northwestern and Penn State. With State Farm Center set to host NCAA tournament regional action in December, it looked like the Illini were going to fall short of even reaching the tournament at all.

As the calendar turned to November, the Illini’s fortunes began to change. They swept Iowa on the road before heading into a four-game home stand at Huff Hall. No. 17 Michigan came to town and took the first two sets of its match with Illinois. But this time, the Illini wrote a different ending to their story. They fought back, taking the next three sets from Michigan to win the match. The wins didn’t stop there. The Illini won their next three home matches to push their winning streak to five, where it currently stands. Freshman Maddie Mayers recently earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors, and the Illini’s NCAA tournament prospects look brighter than ever barring a late-season collapse. Wins in their final four matches could secure home-court advantage in the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament. If they end up making it to the regional round, expect State Farm Center to be rocking for this year’s resilient Illini squad.

If the NCAA basketball tournament has shown us anything, it’s that Cinderella teams can catch fire at the right time, and teams can play above their regular-season body of work. Butler, Florida Gulf Coast and Wichita State are all recent examples of basketball teams that made miracle tournament runs. I don’t see why the Illini volleyball and soccer teams aren’t capable of the same sort of feat. They’re poised for it. They’re jelling down the stretch, and winning is contagious.

Illinois volleyball and soccer have already saved Illini Nation from the depths of a gloomy fall sports season. If these programs can sustain their momentum deep into the NCAAs, then that will be the icing on the cake.

Alex is a sophomore in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.