Illinois volleyball — back with a vengeance?

Illinois volleyball fans look back fondly on the 2011 season. That golden year when the team clinched its fourth consecutive visit to the NCAA tournament on the way to a second-place finish after falling to UCLA 3-1 in the championship. It was a bittersweet ending, but there was an excitement around the program that promised better things to come.

Then 2012 happened.

A 14-16 season. Talk about change. No team ever wants to finish below .500, but coming after such success, the letdown was harder to take. Sophomores Liz McMahon and Morganne Criswell had only ever known triumph. How were they supposed to feel about being shut out of the post-season all together after failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament in December? Not good, probably.

All they could do is hope to come back strong in 2013, and they have.

The Illini have put on a show. Now granted, it is early in the season, almost the earliest it can be. But I’m optimistic.

They started their season this past weekend at the Long Beach State Mizuno Invitational. By sweeping No. 18 Florida State in their opening match, the Illini made a strong statement.

Before this tournament Illinois was only 1-3 all time against the Seminoles.

Later the same day the Illini dropped their match against host Long Beach State 3-1. A blip? Overconfidence? Working out the kinks? Maybe, but Long Beach State isn’t to be underestimated. LBSU has a storied program that includes three national titles and boasts alumni such as Olympic gold medalist Misty May-Treanor.

Losing to the 49ers is nothing to be ashamed of.

On the final day of the tournament the Illini bounced back after dropping the first two sets to beat No. 17 Kentucky 3-2.

Not a bad weekend.

After redshirting last season, freshman Maddie Mayers made her Illinois debut in the tournament and earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors for her efforts.

The road to regaining national relevance doesn’t get any easier as we get deeper into the season. Next up the Illini travel to Ames, Iowa, to compete in the Iowa State challenge where they will face two AVCA top-25 teams in San Diego and Iowa State.

What about conference play? Eight of the top-25 teams hail from the Big Ten, including No. 1 Penn State. Yikes, talk about strength of schedule. Circle that Oct. 18 home matchup with the Nittany Lions on your calendar; chances are it’s not something to miss.

It’s hard not to get amped up when your team is doing well right out the gate. Remember 2012’s six-game win streak in football? Or last year’s men’s basketball team starting 14-0? It was like a dream.

Everyone on campus gets all cocky and fans come out in droves to watch their team — undoubtedly — squash the opponent. Because we can’t lose, right?

Tell that to my sophomore self that lay crying on the bleachers of the north end zone in Memorial Stadium during the six-game slide that followed that too-good-to-be-true start.

But volleyball isn’t football or basketball. As Kevin Hambly begins his fifth year as head coach at Illinois he can offer constancy and the benefit of experience to a young but talented team.

Hopefully no tears will be shed this season. The only sounds to escape Huff Hall should be those of Spike Squad — volleyball’s student fan section — berating the opponent and announcing an Illinois victory with their rendition of the Alma Mater.

Aryn is a senior in LAS. She can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @ArynBraun.