Soaking up the dye

By BobLa Gesse

Don Hardin would not look too flattering in tie-dye. It’s nothing against the Illinois women’s volleyball coach; it’s just not what works for him. But for his team, it may be exactly what they need.

“I think of (getting to the volleyball elite) more in the way of dying a cloth,” Hardin said. “You dip it in the dye and you hang it in the sun. Then you dip it in the dye for another coat and you hang it in the sun. Every time, it gets a little more where you’re looking to go. I don’t think one match makes or breaks it.”

No. 16 Illinois brings No. 1 USC to town to partake in the State Farm Illini Classic. If both teams win Friday, they will face off on Saturday in the final. If the match up happens, the Illini will have a chance to prove they have as much ink in the arsenal as the defending national champs.

Hardin feels it takes continual exposure against the top teams, continual NCAA Tournament appearances and continually finishing high in the Big Ten. Over the last three years, Illinois has been doing that.

With the exception of an injury-filled 2002, the Illini have been in the Top 25, finishing as high as second in conference last year and making the NCAA Tournament.

Illinois has taken on top teams and has held its own. In 2001 the Illini took Final Four-bound Arizona to the limit in the second round before losing. Last year, Illinois beat Minnesota, a Final Four team. Illinois was swept in the Sweet Sixteen by another Final Four participant, Hawaii.

By playing the top competition, Illinois figured something out.

“We realized we’re good enough to play with (Hawaii),” said senior libero Lauren Harks. “A lot of us have the mindset that we can come out and we don’t have to be scared, we can play with them. It doesn’t matter who is on the other side of the net because we are playing for Illinois and we are playing together.”

The team didn’t talk like that last year. And that is why this volleyball match is the biggest sporting event this weekend on campus – and maybe the second most important all year behind the Illinois-Wake Forest basketball game in December.

The football team is trying to show they can just compete with any Division I-A team this weekend. They are looking to gain respect. The volleyball team already has that. They are looking to move to where few teams go – the Final Four.

Hardin has talked the last few years about getting his team to the that stage. Good thing Hardin knows something about the Final Four. He played in two at Ohio State and led the Illini to the Final Four as an assistant coach in 1987. And now the program is getting close to achieving it.

This year’s team has a great mix of youth and veterans. Illinois has honorable mention All-American senior setter Erin Virtue, which is like having quarterback Matt Leinart returning to the national champion USC football team.

The back row, the defense of a volleyball team, is as good as any in the nation. The middle blockers and outside hitters, the offense of a volleyball team, is full of youth but is led by rising superstar junior Rachel VanMeter, who may join Virtue on an All-American team before she graduates.

So what would winning or even playing close with the best team in the country do for Illinois?

“Let’s say we come Saturday, we don’t win, but we’re playing hard,” Virtue said. “We’ll know the next time we’re playing USC we know how they play. They are a team we could see in a second or third round match.”

So the Illini may lose. This is the type of game that can vault them to being a Final Four-caliber team. This may not be the year. It might happen in two years.

But you never know if the cloth has enough dye on it until you take it off the clothesline.

Bobby La Gesse is a senior in communications. He can be reached at [email protected]