Away from home: Illinois volleyball credits road environments during conference play for postseason success

The+Illinois+volleyball+team+celebrates+after+their+win+against+Kentucky+on+Dec.+4.+The+team+attributes+their+success+to+their+on+road+games+during+the+conference+play.

Photo Courtesy of Illinois Volleyball Twitter

The Illinois volleyball team celebrates after their win against Kentucky on Dec. 4. The team attributes their success to their on road games during the conference play.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

Illinois head coach Chris Tamas has always emphasized just how good the Big Ten is. Whether it be the players, coaches, arena atmospheres or general talent of all 14 teams, the conference is elite, with Penn State and Nebraska combining to win four of the last eight national championships.

This season, six of the remaining 16 NCAA tournament teams hail from the Big Ten, with No. 4 Wisconsin, No. 6 Purdue, No. 9 Ohio State, No. 10 Nebraska, No. 12 Minnesota and Illinois all still battling in the postseason. 

The Illini will take on one of its fellow conference foes on Thursday, taking on the Cornhuskers in Austin, Texas. 

“It just proves how strong this conference is,” Tamas said. “If you’re gonna make it through the conference, you’re gonna be battle-tested, whether at home or on the road.”

Competing in such a competitive conference has been especially helpful for postseason preparations, says redshirt junior setter Diana Brown. With eight of the conference’s teams earning a berth in the tournament, the Illini are familiar with the quality level needed to succeed against other squads from across the country.

“The Big Ten really helps prepare us for the tournament,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, we do have to face one of them, but that was bound to happen. You know, we’re kinda riding the high of going to Kentucky, beating them on their floor in front of their fans and all that; of course we celebrated, of course we had a good time.

“But (on Monday) we came back into practice and it was back to business, so we look back on this weekend and say that was a great time, but let’s do it again.”

Heading into the home of the reigning national champion and host No. 7 Kentucky last Saturday, Illinois knew what it was getting into. The Wildcats had lost just one match at home all season — a 3-0 defeat to Creighton on Sept. 4 — and had not dropped a set in over one month. Kentucky also only lost one time during conference play en route to the SEC title.

That did not phase the Illini, though, and after winning the first set and dropping the second, they completely dominated. A one-sided 25-10 third-set victory followed by a 25-21 fourth-set win, which included a 10-1 Illinois run to open the frame, sent the Illini back to Champaign preparing for Sweet 16 play against No. 10 Nebraska.

Twelve teams have entered Memorial Coliseum in Lexington this season, and just two have walked out with wins. Though the Illini had not played in front of Wildcat fans this season, Tamas credits the rowdy road environments during Big Ten play for helping to prepare his team for playing in front of hostile crowds away from home for the entirety of the postseason.

“It’s what we do at pretty much every away venue in this conference, and it just really helps you prepare for those types of moments and really gives a sense of comfort,” Tamas said. “Our players like to compete, so it gets them going as well.”

Finishing the season seventh in their conference, the Illini received an at-large bid and were not ranked high enough to receive the opportunity to host the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, meaning they would be playing away from Huff Hall the entire tournament. 

Sophomore outside hitter Raina Terry says that the lack of a number next to her team’s name may have influenced and affected their perception in the tournament despite the program’s recent history of postseason success.

“We finished seventh in the conference I believe, so I feel like people kind of underestimated us because of that,” Terry said. “Looking at that there’s six teams that are in this Sweet 16, it says a lot about, you know, how good we really can be.”

 

@JacksonJanes3

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