Illinois volleyball heads to Austin for Texas Invitational

There was a noticeable difference in the environment of the Illinois volleyball team’s practice Wednesday.

A week ago, the vibe around the Illini was more subdued, but Wednesday afternoon, a cacophony of voices rang through the rafters of Huff Hall as the Illini closed out practice with a scrimmage.

The drastic change from a week ago represented the focus of Illinois’ efforts as it moves into the last weekend of nonconference play. If it wasn’t apparent enough in watching the Illini practice, it was continually reinforced by listening to them talk.

“Our main goal lately has just been working to stay together as a team and just coming together no matter if the game’s going our way or not,” outside hitter Ali Stark said. “And working on communicating. That’s been a big thing we’ve been focusing on.”

Sophomore Liz McMahon also pointed to communication as a key to improving team chemistry moving forward.

“I think this week we’ve done a really good job of kinda getting out of the individual mode and starting to fight as a team,” McMahon said. “Because the past couple weekends, we’ve been fighting, but it’s been internal. And so this week in practice we worked on just being good teammates and coming at it together and sticking together.”

Positive communication and chemistry will be more important for No. 23 Illinois (3-4) on Friday night when it walks into a rocking Texas gymnasium to take on the Longhorns in the opening game of the Texas Invitational. The last time the Illini played at Texas, they fell 3-2 in the Sweet 16 of the 2010 NCAA tournament.

“We had chances to win the match,” Hambly reflected. “We didn’t take advantage of some opportunities. It was a great college environment. That’s most of what I remember is that Austin has great fans. It was a fantastic college match.”

This weekend’s environment should be no different, as No. 6 Texas enters Friday’s game sporting a 6-2 record with its only losses coming against No. 4 Penn State and No. 10 Minnesota. The Longhorns boast a lineup rife with size and athleticism, so much so that Illinois assistant coach Jen Oldenburg joked Monday on Illini Drive, “They attract (athletic) freaks and teach them how to play volleyball.”

Illinois, though, with its own impressive collection of size and athleticism, remains unfazed.

“Our team is crazy,” the 6-foot-6 McMahon said. “We have just as much height and athleticism as they do. We just gotta play physical and hit hard.”

Hambly believes Illinois matches up even better with the size of Texas than it has with smaller teams.

“Our system’s built and set up to play against teams like that,” Hambly said. “We’re much better, we have been much better, playing against more physical teams than small, fast, quick teams.”

The Illini may have an additional advantage through Hambly’s connection to Minnesota head coach Hugh McCutcheon, who coached U.S. women’s volleyball at the London Olympics. Hambly was the best man in McCutcheon’s wedding, and as luck would have it, Minnesota played Texas twice last weekend, splitting the two matches.

Hambly spoke with him Wednesday morning about McCutcheon’s game plan against the Longhorns.

“It was more just confirming what we see (in Texas),” he said.

While most of the game planning at this point is focused on the marquee matchup, Illinois isn’t overlooking its two opponents Saturday. The Illini will take on Central Florida (3-6) on Saturday morning before finishing of the invitational with a “rematch against Cincinnati”: (1-8) that night.

Despite grueling doubleheaders, the Illini are simply focused on taking it “one game at a time, one point at a time,” Stark said. Illinois has already played in one such doubleheader this season at Dayton, and the experience gained should benefit the team in Austin.

The Illini will also be bolstered by the full return of Stark, who has been playing at around 70 percent after “spraining her ankle”: in Dayton, Ohio. Stark said the ankle felt good, and Hambly expects to use her as a frontline hitter for the first time since the injury. The return of the redshirt freshman will also help Hambly shorten the “rotation of players”:

“We’re trying to find stability in our lineup and stability on offense,” Hambly said. “We’ve tested enough stuff and see what people can do, and now it’s time to put it all together.”

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