Tourney will stay in Miami, just Midwest

By Ian Gold

The Illini looked strong against Illinois State, but not strong enough to stand up to Hurricane Frances. The storm has pushed their tournament this weekend from tropical Miami, Fla., to a less tropical Miami, Ohio.

“We still plan on going to Miami,” head coach Don Hardin said at the last postgame press conference. The statement invoked smiles on Rachel VanMeter’s and Erin Virtue’s faces. But the smiles were short-lived as Hardin concluded the sentence with the word, “Ohio.”

The chuckles that followed were evidence of the fact that although they would rather be traveling to Florida, Ohio will be just fine. In order to be ready for a brutal Big Ten season, the team will need to get in as many games as possible.

“This early in the year we need to play,” Hardin said. “I was impressed with the way the team looked today. They looked as good on opening night as any of my teams here, but to stay idle early in the year could really hurt us.”

The make-up tournament in Ohio will pit the Illini against Texas Christian University and Miami (OH). Both games were booked on last minute scheduling, but they were solid competition, even for a team scrambling to fill the weekend. There were supposed to be three separate big tournaments in Florida, and the hurricane left teams all around the country in desperation.

After traveling east, the Illini will try to keep up the execution they showed on Wednesday night and will continue to experiment with lineups. Coach Hardin expressed an interest in getting some of the supporting players in the match to see what they can add.

One player who has already shown what she can add is junior outside hitter Rachel VanMeter. VanMeter took the team on her shoulders at one point last game. Whether it was through her flying spikes or wicked serves, she was putting the points on the board.

Illinois State head coach Sharon Dingman was so impressed it appeared she was wondering why VanMeter doesn’t square off against Hurricane Frances herself.

“Don Hardin probably has a lot on his mind with the tournament being cancelled this weekend,” Dingman said post-game. “But having VanMeter around should help to take some of that off his mind.”

Setter Erin Virtue added to the sentiment by simply saying that VanMeter played great. But the extra twinkle in her eye was that of a quarterback whose team has just signed an all-star wide receiver.

It is important for the Illini to carry the momentum from Illinois State through this weekend and into next. Even though Coach Hardin and his players have stated many times that their season does not depend on the first few games of the year, going cold into a match against the No. 1 ranked USC Trojans would be tough.

The maturation process should continue as Hardin’s challenging out-of-conference schedule progresses. The Illini are quietly putting in the work needed to grow as a team.