Illini volleyball reloads for 2015 after falling short of goal last season.

By Nicholas Fortin

For the second straight year, the Illinois volleyball team made the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament.

And for the second straight year, Illinois (26-8 16-4 Big Ten) LB was eliminated in that round, this season by Florida. For the Illini, the final match was a bitter finish to yet another great season.

“We’re supposed to be beyond this,” said head coach Kevin Hambly about the Sweet Sixteen before Illinois squared off with Florida. “(With) all the kids that we’ve recruited, we’ve been talking about making Final Fours, winning national titles, trying to put banners up and not just advancing to the tournament.”

After starting the season 8-3, the road got tougher for the Illini once the team reached conference play. Against tougher Big Ten competition, Illinois still excelled.

The Illini rattled off both three- and five-game winning streaks in conference play, and in the process achieved something that hadn’t been done since Oct. 8, 2011. LBIllinois knocked off Penn State at home, a feat that had only been accomplished by a non-Illinois team once in the Nittany Lion’s past 97 home matches.

Illinois finished the regular season strong with a three-game winning streak and a 16-4 conference record that put the Illini in third in the Big Ten on the season. LBThey moved into the postseason with momentum.

The team played host to the first two rounds of the tournament. After sweeping Murray State in the first round, Illinois swept Iowa State, the school that would play host to the Illini in the next round of the tournament.

Illinois traveled to Ames, Iowa, confident in its play despite going up against No. 1 Florida and its freshman phenom middle blocker, Rhamat Alhassan.

“Yeah, they won a bunch of games,” said sophomore defensive specialist Danielle Davis about Florida before the match. “But they haven’t played us yet.”

In the end Alhassan proved to be too much for the Illini — the middle blocker put away seven kills on 10 attempts in the third set alone — as the Gators went on to win the match in five sets.LB

After eluding the injury bug for most of the year, Illinois suffered an injury to junior setter Alexis Viliunas when it hurt the most.

While the injury turned out to just be a rolled ankle that she recovered from, and played in the remainder of the match against Florida on, her play seemed somewhat hindered and the Illini’s tournament run ended.LB

After losing three seniors to graduation — middle blocker Anna Dorn, outside hitter Morganne Criswell and opposite side hitter Liz McMahon — the Illini wasted little time filling their spots for the 2015 season. LB

Illinois signed three in-coming freshman — setter Jordyn Poulter, middle blocker Ali Bastinelli and outside hitter Beth Prince — who are all in the top-50 of Volleyball Magazine’s Fab 50 list. LB

The Illini also landed junior transfer Naya Crittenden from Oregon. LBCrittenden will add depth to an already deep Illini frontcourt and will compete for the opposite side hitter position left vacant by McMahon.

While the Illini lost three valuable senior leaders to graduation, the depth of next year’s team will make Illinois a favorite in the Big Ten yet again next season.

For Hambly, the team will need to do more than just compete in conference to win his approval.

The Illini will need to surpass the point they reached in the NCAA tournament this season.

“No one is satisfied with where we are,” Hambly said before Illinois played Florida. “There’s more to do.”

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