Men’s club volleyball finishes second in National Championships

The+men%E2%80%99s+club+volleyball+team+celebrates+its+victory+at+National+Championships+over+the+weekend.+The+Illini+were+pleased+with+their+second-place+finish+in+the+tournament.+
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Men’s club volleyball finishes second in National Championships

The men’s club volleyball team celebrates its victory at National Championships over the weekend. The Illini were pleased with their second-place finish in the tournament.

The men’s club volleyball team celebrates its victory at National Championships over the weekend. The Illini were pleased with their second-place finish in the tournament.

Photo Courtesy of Illinois Men’s Club Volleyball

The men’s club volleyball team celebrates its victory at National Championships over the weekend. The Illini were pleased with their second-place finish in the tournament.

Photo Courtesy of Illinois Men’s Club Volleyball

Photo Courtesy of Illinois Men’s Club Volleyball

The men’s club volleyball team celebrates its victory at National Championships over the weekend. The Illini were pleased with their second-place finish in the tournament.

By Jared Farmer, Staff Writer

A roller coaster is meant to flush out the full range of human emotion. One instance of terrifying anticipation is followed by a euphoric release of adrenaline as the ride drops — or the opposite, for those who don’t like roller coasters.

In sports, everything is a roller coaster; careers, individual matches and entire seasons are filled with those ups and downs that give each sport and its players, coaches and consumers the unparalleled experience of riding along.

The Illinois men’s club volleyball team concluded its season last weekend with a National Tournament run that can be considered nothing short of a wild rollar coaster ride.

After registering as a club team in 1984, the Illini recruit members every year on Quad Day. The club is divided into three teams based on skill every season. Every Tuesday and Thursday evening, they can be seen practicing at the ARC.

“Usually we warm up by playing threes and doing serve-serve-receive drills,” said outside hitter Nosa Egiebor. “Afterwards we do a bunch of drills and practice plays, followed by a full-hour scrimmage to end the practice.”

Ten years after its founding, the team began to establish itself as one of the premiere club teams in the country. It won its first Big Ten title in 1994 and closed out the ’90s with two more Big Ten trophies in ’98 and ’99. The team came back in 2001 to win their fourth. This overlaps four straight Midwest Intercollegiate Volleyball Championships from 1998-2001.

After five seasons, the Illini returned to maintaining hegemonic dominance over the club volleyball scene in the Big Ten. Akin to the Boston Celtics back in the 1960s, the Illini defended the Big Ten Championship for eight consecutive years spanning 2006-2013, with one more MIVA championship in 2007 along with another Big Ten Championship in 2016.

They don white jerseys for uniforms, with the sides decorated the traditional orange and blue, and a blue sash across the chest that tightly packs the words “Fighting Illini” within its parallel walls. On the back, each player wears a nickname. Names such as “Matty Ice”, “Crowd Pleaser” and “Touch-Six Chimp” can be seen sprawled across the players’ backsides.

“We just wanted to have a nickname we could customize,” Egiebor, who chose his nickname to be “Wakanda Forever,” said. “We wanted to be unique and have something that could make the first team stand out. We wanted something we could enjoy now and joke about later so we stuck them on our alternates.”

This team doesn’t usually compete outside tournament pools. The Illini face off against a vast majority of matchups within the National Collegiate Volleyball Federation in tournament play, with each team entering up to four tournaments each semester.

“We have a little bit of say in what tournaments we can go to every year. Since we’re one of the better teams in the Big Ten, and this year the nation, we try to pick up the biggest tournaments every year,” said team president Alec Horne. “All the teams in the Big Ten are usually really good, and our conference usually represents at the national tournament.”

Coming into the 2018-19 season, the Illini had a new trophy set in their sights — the National Championship trophy, which has eluded the team since its inception.

The 2019 NCVF National Tournament was hosted at the Convention Center in Denver. On day one of the tournament, every team is placed into a pool with four other teams. Whichever team wins the pool goes on to automatically advance through to the next day, while the second- and third-place teams play a crossover match to continue competing. The last team is eliminated from play.

“We placed second in our pool then won our crossover match Friday morning against Iowa State,” said defensive specialist Alex Bryk.

The next day, the Illini competed in a three-team bracket featuring the Cal Poly Mustangs and Delaware Blue Hens. Their first match in the bracket was against the Mustangs, and they lost.

“We were extra sporadic because we had it in our heads that we had go undefeated just to make it in the gold bracket,” Egiebor said. “So when we played them, we were flat. We had 15 service errors and a bunch of hitting errors. Even so, we were still able to keep the game close, so we were confident we could take them the next time.”

The Mustangs advanced to the next round — the gold bracket — automatically, leaving the Illini and Blue Hens to duke it out for the next bracket spot. Illinois made quick work of Delaware in the matchup and joined the gold bracket the following morning.

The gold bracket saw the Illini face off first against the two-time defending national champion, the San Diego State Aztecs. The Illini went down big in the first set of the best-of-three matchup. After giving up a 14-1 lead at the start, the Aztecs came out of the first set looking poised to embark on a third consecutive title run.

In a tightly contested bout, the Illini completely turned around the outcome of the series with a come-from-behind win, finishing the second set 25-22. Controlling the momentum, Illinois won its third set to advance to the next round against Marquette.

The first matchup between the two teams was an overtime battle in which the Golden Eagles scraped by with a 31-29 victory. But the Illini rallied in the second and third sets to pull away with 25-20 and 15-12 victories, respectively.

In the gold bracket semifinal, the Illini faced the No. 2-seeded Liberty University. By this time, the Illini had truly caught their stride and put out the Flames with back to back 25-20 victories. Cal Poly was waiting in the championship round — a rematch of day two in the tournament.

The final match on Saturday the Convention Center was packed with fans and athletes for the final showdown.

“For the championship, it’s important to comment on the environment,” Bryk said. “There were probably about 6,000 people in attendance. It was nice to expect what Cal Poly was going to bring since we’d played them before and try to figure out how we could use that environment to our benefit.”

The Illini continued their hot streak and stole the first matchup against Cal Poly, 25-22. With the win, the Illini were just one set away from the championship, but after taking a lead in the second set, things went south.

“They started a comeback,” Egiebor said. “We got into the mindset that they’d given up since we were up so big, but they ended up coming back and winning the next set in overtime 29-27. The final set was another tight one that we lost, 19-17 and that was the championship.”

After their loss, the roller coaster tournament run came to an epic finish. The Illini still look to capture their first national championship, but the team is hardly upset about the runner-up finish.

“It was easily the biggest stage I’ve ever been on in my life,” Egiebor said. “I’ll never forget that experience.”

 

@jaredefarmer

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