Return of fans restores electric atmosphere inside Huff Hall for Illinois volleyball


The Daily Illini file Photo

Illinois volleyball fans hold up copies of the Daily Illini during the game against Penn State on Nov. 15, 2019. After a long absence due to COVID-19, many fans have returned to watch Illinois home volleyball games.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

Feb. 20, 2021. Illinois welcomed undefeated Ohio State to Huff Hall for its second match of the weekend. One of the top teams in the conferences, the Buckeyes had beaten the Illini, 3-1, the night before.

After taking a 2-1 lead after three sets, Illinois was on the verge of pulling off the upset and snapping its five-match losing streak. But, the visitors had other plans, winning the fourth set, 25-18, before grinding out a 15-11 fifth-set win to seal the victory.

With the match locked at 11-11 in the fourth set, the Illini needed a boost after coming back from a 9-1 deficit. But, looking up into the stands, the team was met with a sea of blue: empty seats.

Fans have now returned this season, and the players can tell there’s a significant, noticeable difference in terms of both noise and energy levels.

“It’s awesome,” said sophomore outside hitter Raina Terry. “The fans bring so much energy, and it definitely bleeds into our energy a lot, so it helps so much more than people realize.”

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Terry played her entire freshman campaign without spectators in the crowd, though she still led the team in kills (210) and points (251.5) while starting 17 of the Illini’s 18 matches.

Unlike Terry, junior middle blocker Kennedy Collins already had experience at the college level with playing in front of fans, though she says there isn’t much of a difference in terms of the team’s mindset heading into matches now that fans have returned.

“It’s always a great advantage to play in front of the home crowd, but I think our mindsets are still the same, like just go out there and play our hardest,” Collins said.

Last season, all Big Ten teams were only able to play conference matches, with all competitions played behind closed doors. With the Big Ten being one of the powerhouses in college volleyball, every match is a grind, and any team can win on any given night. 

Maryland demonstrated that on Sept. 24 against Wisconsin. The Terrapins were picked to finish joint-bottom of the conference in the Big Ten preseason volleyball poll, while the Badgers, who went undefeated in conference play and advanced to the NCAA Final Four last season, were the unanimous favorite to win the league for a third straight year.

Maryland wasn’t phased, though, as it took down mighty Wisconsin in five sets in College Park. 

“You never know what’s gonna happen in the Big Ten,” said junior middle blocker Kyla Swanson. “It’s so unpredictable because of home-court advantage.”

Though Illinois sits at 2-4 at Huff Hall this season, each of the four losses came against teams ranked at some point this season: Washington, Colorado, Wisconsin and Purdue. While the Illini may not have beaten any of those squads, they took the Buffaloes and Boilermakers to five sets and the Badgers and Huskies to four. 

Head coach Chris Tamas credits the student section for creating a loud and electric atmosphere at home matches, though every person in the building plays a role in making it difficult for opponents to ever get settled while playing in Champaign. 

“It’s good to have a feisty Spike Squad, and the net workers out there and the rest of the fans that are cheering us on,” Tamas said. “It’s really nice to have that back at Huff.” 

As the Illini continue to adjust to having fans back in arenas, they don’t have to worry about being greeted by a sea of blue when walking into Huff Hall; they’re greeted with a sea of orange, with the crickets of last year now overpowered by a screaming student section, blaring brass band, passionate and proud parents and feisty fans.



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