Illini to visit coach’s alma mater in season opener against BYU

Volleyball head coach Kevin Hambly is a West Coast native, and part of him liked the idea of showing his Midwest-based team what mountains really look like.

First stop: Hambly’s alma mater, Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

“A lot of these kids are Midwest kids, and they don’t know what mountains look like until they’ve been there,” said Hambly, who grew up in Simi Valley, Calif., less than 50 miles from Los Angeles. “My two little girls, they think that a hill is a mountain. And I said to them, ‘No, this isn’t a mountain.’ So I think it’s good to take (Illinois) to a different terrain and kind of see what BYU is about.”

Hambly didn’t intend to open Illinois’ volleyball season at the college he played for from 1992 to 1995. It just worked out, especially since he knows BYU head coach Shawn Olmstead, who invited the Illini to the BYU Nike Invitational this weekend.

His latest memory of setting foot on BYU’s volleyball courts was nearly 12 years ago, when he was an assistant coach at UNLV.

“We were in the same conference, so we played a match there,” said Hambly, now in his third year coaching the Illini. “I might have went that same year to watch a game — the men’s team play against UCLA. I just wanted to watch a match. And that’s it. It’s been a while. My coach isn’t coaching there, so I’m not as compelled to go back.”

Hambly led the nation in blocks as a player in 1995, was a two-time All-American and helped the Cougars to three top-10 finishes in the nation.

The thought of playing on the courts of their coach’s alma mater hasn’t exactly dawned on Illinois, especially the freshmen.

“He hasn’t talked about it at all,” freshman Liz McMahon said.

All four of this year’s freshmen hail from the Midwest, and opening the season on the road is a quick jump into the collegiate season.

“I’m a little nervous,” said McMahon, a Liberty Township, Ohio, native. “This is something totally new, traveling. Especially on my first week of school, having to pack up and go, but it’s another opportunity to see what we’re made of.”

Hambly went to BYU hoping to be a volleyball coach and thought playing under Carl McGown, who led the Cougars to two NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championships, would help him best.

“I knew I wanted to coach at a young age,” Hambly said. “(Carl’s) known worldwide as a fantastic coach. He’s coaching in Switzerland for a professional team right now. I took every opportunity I had to learn what it’s like to be a coach, what good college volleyball is about and how he prepared.”

“I spent a lot of time in his office, probably more time than I should’ve been in class,” Hambly added. “But I wanted to know what it takes to be a college coach, and that certainly confirmed to me that I wanted that lifestyle.”

Under Hambly, the Illini have garnered two top-10 recruiting classes, including this year’s No. 3 freshman McMahon.

While the season opener will give the Illini match-play experience, it may also give them a mini-tour of Hambly’s past.

“We’re really excited to go, actually,” said sophomore and Reseda, Calif., native Jennifer Beltran. “We’ve been talking to him about it and asking if he can show us around campus us a bit.”