Illini volleyball off to strong start in spring season

Illinois%27+head+coach+Kevin+Hambly+instructs+his+team+during+an+NCAA+Tournament+second-round+match+against+Marquette+at+Huff+Hall+on+Dec.+7.+The+Illini+won+3-1.
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Illini volleyball off to strong start in spring season

Illinois' head coach Kevin Hambly instructs his team during an NCAA Tournament second-round match against Marquette at Huff Hall on Dec. 7. The Illini won 3-1.

Illinois' head coach Kevin Hambly instructs his team during an NCAA Tournament second-round match against Marquette at Huff Hall on Dec. 7. The Illini won 3-1.

Illinois' head coach Kevin Hambly instructs his team during an NCAA Tournament second-round match against Marquette at Huff Hall on Dec. 7. The Illini won 3-1.

Illinois' head coach Kevin Hambly instructs his team during an NCAA Tournament second-round match against Marquette at Huff Hall on Dec. 7. The Illini won 3-1.

When the Illinois volleyball team took the court at the Indy Collegiate Invitational in Plainfield, Ind., it wasn’t as one collective team.

The Illini split their 16-player roster into orange and blue squads that competed separately throughout the tournament. Both the orange and blue teams won two of their four matches, but head coach Kevin Hambly said the Illini’s collective goal was deeper than wins or losses.

“I thought there were some really good things going on,” Hambly said. “We competed hard, we played hard. For us, it’s so much about just trying to get us an opportunity to grow and learn, and I think we got all of that.”

The two Illini teams were put into different pools of the tournament, with the orange team in one of the tournament’s two four-team pools and the blue team in one of the three three-team pools. All of the matches consisted of only two sets. 

Illinois’ orange team started the day by splitting its first match against Illinois State. The orange team lost the first set against the Red Birds 23-25 before taking the second set 25-20. Illinois’ blue team had an easier time in its first game, beating the University of Akron 25-9 and 25-10.

In its second match, the orange team found its rhythm beating Indiana in both sets 27-25, 25-17. After the match against the Hoosiers, the orange team split another match, this time against Kentucky. The orange team lost the first set to the Wildcats 22-25 before taking the second set 25-18.

The blue team split its second match against Western Kentucky, losing the first set 19-25 and taking the second set 25-22.

With its performance in the opening round of the tournament, the blue team moved into the first place pool with Ohio State and Louisville. From there, the blue team continued its success, taking both sets in its next match against Louisville, 26-24 and 25-22, respectively.

The blue team wrapped up its night with a one-set match against Ohio State. The Buckeyes took the set 25-20 before the match ended because of what the press release called “time and fatigue.”

Illinois’ orange team took second place in its four-team pool and moved on to play one final match against West Virginia. The orange team took advantage of the opportunity to play again, beating the Mountaineers 25-15 in the first set and 25-16 in the second set.

Hambly said that above all else, the tournament served as a way for younger players to gain experience at the college level.

“We put some kids in some situations they’ve never been in before,” Hambly said. “On both teams, we had four kids who had never really played college volleyball, except for the spring, so to see them playing all the time and competing hard it was really, really fun to watch and be a part of.”

Although both Illini teams combined to win four matches and dropped only four sets throughout the tournament, Hambly is more preoccupied with helping the team learn.

“I don’t really get that caught up in the results of the spring (season),” Hambly said. “I get more caught up in, ‘Are they competing hard?’

“Some people talk to you like they want to win everything, and we want to win because we’re competitive, but that’s not the main focus. The main focus is ‘How good can we be?’”

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