Illinois volleyball gains confidence from home crowd, better play

By Nicholas Fortin

On the court the Illinois volleyball team can compete with anyone in the country, but in the stands it’s no contest, at least for the team. 

Illinois is in the midst of a three-game winning streak, two of which came last week against the Nos. 13 and 17 Michigan State and Michigan at home in front of one of the most passionate crowds in college volleyball.

The Illini have some of the most avid fans in the country, including a student section, the Spike Squad, that is at every home match and even travels to watch the team compete. 

“I can’t say enough good things about our Spike Squad,” senior defensive specialist Courtney Abrahamovich said. “They’ve been just amazing, especially this season. They’ve been so loyal, they’ve gone on road trips. We just feel like they’re backing us 100 percent, and not only just the Spike Squad, but everybody in here. I think Huff is just the greatest place ever to play college volleyball, and I couldn’t be happier with having it as our home court. I think that the support that we have and the community feeling, it can’t be beat, and I would not like to be another team coming in here to play.”

Illinois won four of its last five games and has been gaining confidence from how well it’s been playing as the season progresses. 

“When you start winning and you win a couple matches and you put a couple together, of course you feel better, and you build off that,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “So it’s like, OK, we’re a pretty good team. We’re beating good teams; we’ve beat two ranked teams, whatever that means, but more importantly a team that beat us up last time. We feel like we’re getting better, so of course we’re playing with a little bit more confidence.”

Another major reason for the Illini’s recent boost in confidence and success on the court is the fans, whose energy carries over to the court. 

“When we win a game and they come over and congratulate us, we’re just so happy that we were able to just feed off each other’s energy and almost give them a win,” Abrahamovich said. “Its just so cool that they come out here for tough, five-set wins and we were able to reward them with a win.”

Illinois is currently 5-4 at home overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten at home this season, a major improvement from last year when the Illini finished 5-7 at home and missed the NCAA tournament. Despite Illinois’ performance on the court in 2012, the fans never deserted the team.

“That’s what makes this place so unique,” Abrahamovich said. “We are a great program, we’ve had great years, but even in a year that statistically wasn’t so great they still love volleyball and they come out to support us no matter what. They get to know us personally as people we get to know them. We stay in contact, we’re friends with the Spike Squad.”

Illinois will play an additional two games at home this weekend to complete its four-game home stand after being away from Huff Hall for two weeks. The Illini will face Indiana and No. 18 Purdue on Friday and Saturday, respectively, and will look to the Spike Squad to provide some extra energy.

“It’s always such a positive thing to have our fans come out and support us,” senior libero Jennifer Beltran said. “I always enjoy playing here, and I’m going to miss it very much when it’s over.”

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