Illini volleyball bares similarities to past teams

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Illinois’ Liz McMahon prepares to spike the ball during the NCAA Second Round vs. Iowa State at Huff Hall on Saturday, Dec. 6.

Liz McMahon isn’t one for comparisons.

The senior opposite side hitter shied away from a question asking her to compare this year’s No. 9-seed Illinois volleyball team with the 2011 Illini that finished as NCAA Championship runner-ups.

For McMahon, it’s the fact that when the Illini went on the 2011 run, she was a wide-eyed freshman who doesn’t remember many of the details of the team.

Three years later, McMahon is a senior leader who’s ready to help this year’s Illini take the next step toward an NCAA championship when they play Florida in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

As for the comparison, even though the similarities between the two teams are evident, McMahon is more worried about this year’s Illini playing to their potential.

“We’re working to play our best volleyball right now and that’s the most important thing,” she said.

While the similarities may be harder for McMahon to see, they’re easy for head coach Kevin Hambly to spot. Although Hambly doesn’t want to put any added pressure on the Illini, it’s hard not to compare the current squad to the 2011 team.

“We operate a lot like we did in ’11,” Hambly said at practice last week. “The way we treat each other, the unselfishness that we play with. We hold each other accountable in the right way.

“We work really hard. The difference in this group compared to the last two years is we’ve won a lot of matches against some really good teams in tough environments.”

This season, the Illini knocked off both Nebraska and Penn State on the road — two schools that are historically tough at home — and swept the Michigan-Michigan State series for the first time in Hambly’s tenure.

The Illini have also been on a roll in the tournament to this point, sweeping Murray State and Iowa State, their first and second round opponents, respectively.

Although the Illini don’t want to make a big deal out of the impressive start to their tournament run or the season they’ve had up to this point, Hambly said before the start of the tournament that this year’s Illini team may be capable of anything.

“I’m not saying this team could do what ’11 did,” Hambly said. “But they could do more.”

Looking ahead

Illinois’ next test in the tournament will be similar to the teams it has faced all year.

The Illini will face No. 8-seed Florida on Friday in Ames, Iowa, a team Hambly said is big and physical, two words he has used to describe Big Ten teams all season.

“They’re really, really athletic,” Hambly said. “They’ve got a system that they understand how to play and they have great adjustments. They have really good defense in the back court.”

While the Illini are also both big and physical in comparison to the rest of the country, Hambly said Florida’s athleticism is unmatched in some areas.

“They have a kid that touches 11 feet,” Hambly said. “We don’t have anyone that does that.”

If Illinois defeats Florida, the Illini will face the winner of No. 1-seed Stanford and Oregon State on Saturday.

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @IlliniSportsGuy.