Road back to Sweet 16 has been long for Illini

By Nicholas Fortin

The Illinois volleyball team is back.

The Illini are into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011, but their road has been significantly different than that of the 2011 team.

“It has definitely been a different road, for sure,” senior libero Jennifer Beltran said. “What stands out for me the most is that we’ve had to work for it. My freshman year we already knew we were going to be in the tournament, and the next year we already knew we were going to be in the tournament, but this year was a lot different. We had to fight for it. It was nice to see that fight come out of this team. Our road’s going to be different, but in the end it will definitely be sweet.”

The road between Sweet 16 appearances has been long, it will have been 735 days when Illinois takes the floor Friday at State Farm Center, and the team has grown a lot in that time.

“We’ve been taking care of business, which has been really nice,” Beltran said. “I think the thing that stands out the most is that we keep improving every single day. Not only have we seen it on the court, but we’ve seen it in the gym just in practice, which is really cool.”

There are only three Illini players left from the 2011 team that played their way to the NCAA Championship game. Head coach Kevin Hambly said it showed in the first game of the tournament against Morehead State, but the team was able to settle themselves in the second round.

“Well I thought the first match they were a little nervous and anxious,” Hambly said. “I thought the kids that had played before were a little nervous and anxious as you are in the first round. Against Marquette we were really calm and we looked more like ourselves.”

Redshirt freshman middle blocker Maddie Mayers, who played well in the first two rounds of the tournament after finishing with five kills and four blocks in the two games, said she was initially nervous but that the crowd helped her through it.

With two games in the tournament under their belt and another one coming up Friday against Purdue, the Illini feel as if their youth is giving way to experience and that the team is improving along the way.

“We’re still getting better,” Mayers said. “There’s always little things to work on, and I think the little improvements we’re making are just going to be another step that will help us in the road to Seattle.”

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and