Hambly schedules tough, Illini to reap rewards

When Illinois volleyball head coach Kevin Hambly says the Illini have the “toughest schedule in the country,” he isn’t saying it as an excuse.

Instead, Hambly is saying that the Illini play the best collegiate teams every week. And it’s not hard to see what he means.

Through two weekends of play, No. 14 Illinois has played five matches, four against top-20 teams, and come away with three wins against No. 16 Florida State, No. 17 Iowa State and No. 19 Kentucky.

“We play tough competition every year, and it’s just another year that we’re going to do that,” Hambly said. “It’s just how we roll.”

Illinois’ schedule won’t get any easier this weekend as the Illini face No. 2 Texas, No. 6 Washington and Arizona State — a team that has been receiving votes.

After this weekend, the Illini will be back on the road to face No. 18 North Carolina and Duke, which arguably the easiest weekend of the year as Duke is ranked 80th in the country. From there, Illinois will head into conference play, wherein the team will face eight of the top 25 teams in the country, including No. 3 Penn State.

The Illini are not only adding experience on the court by playing tough competition but gaining off-the-court advantages from their schedule as well.

“There’s lots of benefits,” Hambly said. “The obvious one is to get us more ready for the Big Ten. It helps us RPI-wise — if we have a great season, we could end up being seeded very high. If we don’t have a great season and we finish above .500, it’ll help us get into the tournament.”

Perhaps the most important reason in scheduling top schools is to find out exactly how good the Illini are as the season progresses.

“We won’t be fooled into believing we’re better than we are because we’ve played quality opponents,” Hambly said.

At the end of the season, the Illini will have faced 15 of the current top-25 and played through what seniors libero Jennifer Beltran and defensive specialist Courtney Abrahamovich consider their toughest nonconference schedule in their four years at Illinois.

That doesn’t mean the Illini players are using the schedule as an excuse, either, as they continue to find positives in the toughness of their opponents.

“A lot of times in years past, we have played teams that have challenged us in some ways but in no way have been as challenging as this schedule,” Abrahamovich said. “Hopefully with all the lessons we can learn from either wins or losses in these games, they can really help us be well-rounded going into the Big Ten.”

For Illinois to continue winning, Abrahamovich said the Illini will have to be extremely persistent.

“We need to be relentless,” Abrahamovich said. “Never giving up and never letting a contact go to waste. Keeping that word in mind and staying super mentally tough, we can pull through anything.”

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and @IlliniSportsGuy.