Illinois volleyball to raise runner-up banner at Stuff Huff

Illinois witnessed firsthand the effect a great home crowd can have on a volleyball match.

One week after being shredded by the buzzsaw that was Dayton in the Flyers’ home opener, the Illini will look to their own crowd to provide an emotional boost.

No. 19 Illinois opens its home schedule this weekend with a doubleheader against No. 15 Iowa State. Friday night’s home opener doubles as the seventh annual Stuff Huff event, which has drawn large crowds in past years.

“Every year, Stuff Huff is, I think, one of the more special events there is,” Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said. “On any campus, in any sport, I just think the proximity of the fans to the court, and then the amount of students that we get and the energy they bring, I can’t imagine a better college environment. It’s what college sports should be.”

The emotion and energy in the building will likely be greater this Friday, as Illinois raises the 2011 NCAA runner-up banner to Huff Hall’s rafters. And while the Illini will be hoping to use the raucous atmosphere to their advantage, controlling that emotion will be key for a relatively young Illinois team fighting to improve on a 1-2 start to the season.

“It’s been a goal since I’ve gotten here: … Stay in the moment. Focus on us rather than the distractions outside of the court,” redshirt freshman Jocelynn Birks said.

Birks will appear in her first regular season game at Huff Hall and said she expects the environment to positively affect her play. But if she, or any other young player needs assistance dealing with nerves, they have a plethora of upperclassmen to turn to, including four-year starter Erin Johnson.

“We just try and help them out and say, ‘If you guys are nervous or feeling nervous or need our help, we’re here for you,’” Johnson said. “We’ve all been through that, we’ve all been nervous. I think it’s going to be impossible to not be nervous, but we really try and focus on each other and try to stay within ourselves and not pay too much attention to all the ruckus going on around us.”

Hambly hopes that ruckus ultimately benefits the Illini.

“Typically our team comes out way too fired up, and then they make a few errors early, and then they kinda settle in and then we get into our groove,” he said. “But the opponent, I think it’s a challenge for them the whole time because it’s rockin’ and our fans are very biased. It makes it a lot of fun.”

The opponent in this case is yet another ranked team, Iowa State. Hambly expects the Cyclones to put increased pressure on the Illinois defense, comparing their propensity for setting more toward the middle of the court and style of play to that of an up-tempo basketball team. Playing back-to-back matches against the same opponent, with the second coming Saturday night, will also be a challenge. The Illini, though, see it more as an opportunity than

an impediment.

“The first time you go into something, you only have so much scouting and so much footage on them, and you don’t know exactly how they’ll play us,” Johnson said. “But I think after that first night we can really see how they played us, how, defensively, they played us and things we need to improve on the second night. So it’ll be cool, we can make some adjustments”

Both Illinois and Iowa State will try to claw back to a winning record. Like Illinois, Iowa State carries a 1-2 mark into the weekend after falling to No. 12 Florida State and No. 15 Tennessee last week. Despite the prospects of a 1-4 start staring both teams in the face, Illinois remains focused not on its record but on the level of play.

“It’s a long season,” Hambly said. “I’m definitely not worrying about the prospect of losing. I’m just trying to do our best to play at the highest level we can.”

If history repeats itself, the Illini will win Friday night, having never lost at Stuff Huff in its six years of existence.

_Daniel can be reached at [email protected] and @danielmillermc._