Illini use alumni match for practice

Coming into the season ranked No. 6 in the AVCA national polls, the Fighting Illini volleyball team has a lot to look forward to in the coming weeks, including non-conference matches against the Nos. 2 and 3 teams along with its first conference match against the powerhouse of college volleyball, Penn State.

But before that happens, the Illini have one thing they need to take care of: keeping their bragging rights and sweeping the alumni team in their annual face off.

“We always expect to win, I mean we’re the team, we should win,” senior Johannah Bangert said. “I don’t know if we have ever lost, but it won’t start this year.”

The match is more of a fun event, giving alumni the chance to visit their alma mater, the team an opportunity to work out any kinks and the new players an opportunity to compete in Huff Hall.

“I think it’s just a good experience, it’s good for the freshmen and the new people to play at Huff because it’s a very unusual environment, it’s fun for the fans to see us,” senior Hilary Haen said. “It’s not really a whole lot of pressure.”

Head coach Kevin Hambly feels like the match is a good “dress rehearsal” for the rest of the season.

“We kind of work the bugs out for how we want to warm up and our video equipment and what it’s like on a match day,” Hambly said. “It’s a good chance for our staff to get everything together and make sure we don’t miss anything as far as stats go. It’s a chance for the girls to put the jerseys on and start playing.”

But for Hambly, the most important aspect is the opportunity for the alumni to come back and reconnect with everyone.

“The Illini are a close-knit group. Things like Facebook and the Internet help them stay in contact, but this event is even better,” Hambly said.

Hambly said a wide range of athletes come back for the Illini match, from a woman who played before volleyball was an NCAA sport, to people who played with his wife Mary, to recent athletes like Ashley Edinger, Kylie McCulley and Lizzie Bazzetta.

Haen said that Hambly’s wife Mary stepped in last year and surprised all of the athletes with her competitive streak. She added that all the alumni are really competitive, but pretty out of shape, just like she’ll be when the time comes for her to return as an alumna.

Haen thinks the best part of match is giving the new players the chance to fully experience Huff, which she believes to be one of the most exciting and unique aspects of Illinois volleyball.

“It’s great that they get to feel out the environment, and I think we will have a decent-size crowd because people want to see what we are going to be like this year,” Haen said.