Volleyball hope matches at home will aid post-season performance

Although regular season wins don’t translate into postseason victories, they will provide one big advantage for the Illinois volleyball team come Thursday night.

The Illini open their NCAA Tournament campaign tonight at 7 p.m., with their 24-5 regular season record giving them the luxury of hosting the first two rounds of the tournament at Huff Hall, which head coach Kevin Hambly thinks will be invaluable.

“I think it’s a huge advantage to be hosting,” Hambly said.

“I’m thrilled. I think we’re going to have this place rockin’ and it’s going to be a huge home-court advantage. We’re hoping the crowd will help us get one win at a time.”

Fifth-seeded Illinois comes face-to-face with the Indiana–Purdue Fort Wayne (IPFW) Mastadons in the first round of the tournament. In the other contest at Huff Hall, Dayton and Milwaukee face off, with the winners of the two matches moving on to play Friday night for a shot at the Sweet 16.

The Mastadons (20-11) have a strong attacking game, but that’s not the main focus for the Orange and Blue entering the match.

“I know that they have a pretty good outside right side, and we’re going to have to take care of that,” junior Laura DeBruler said. “For us, I think it’s more just playing our style of game and really attacking them.”

Last year, the ninth-seeded Illini made a run to the Sweet 16, but the team is not focused on surpassing those achievements just yet.

“I think we all have in the back of our heads how far we want to go in the tournament and what we want to accomplish, but right now we’re really just focused on IPFW,” junior Johannah Bangert said. “On the other hand, we still just have to … really take care of business.”

It’s this mindset that Hambly wants his players to have as they tackle the tournament. He does not want the “what-ifs” to weigh heavily on his players’ minds for the duration of the tournament and hopes they will remain focused on the task at hand.

“If we start looking at where we think we can go, I think we’d drive ourselves crazy,” Hambly said. “What we got to do is focus on what’s ahead of us. We just go to survive. That’s all we’re looking to do right now.”

The Illini finished second in the Big Ten this season, and the team feels that its conference was the best preparation possible for the big stage.

“The great thing for us is that the Big Ten is the perfect setup for this,” DeBruler said. “We’ve been used to playing against competitive teams every weekend. We’re all really excited, this is the time we’ve been focusing on the entire season.”

The Illini, winners of 15 of their last 17 matches, are happy they are starting to peak just when it counts in the tournament.

“We’re in a really good spot right now to do really well in the tournament,” Bangert said. “We’re really happy with where we were seeded. We’re really happy with how we’ve been playing as a team.”