Illinois looks to remain perfect in “Stuff Huff” games against tough opponents

The Illinois volleyball team has never lost a “Stuff Huff” game, and despite facing possibly the toughest opponent they’ve ever hosted at the event, they don’t plan to this year.

The Illini will play three matches this weekend against No. 2 Texas, No. 6 Washington and Arizona State.

The level of competition doesn’t have players like senior defensive specialist Courtney Abrahamovich worried, though, as the team seems exhilarated at the chance to face some of the best teams in the country in front of what she said are the best fans in college volleyball.

“They are all going to be very good, but we are very good and it’s exciting to be able to play two pretty well known national powerhouses, if you will, in Washington and Texas,” Abrahamovich said. “I’m just excited that they get to come and see what they can do in our gym.”

The weekend of “Stuff Huff” will be the Illini’s first home stand of the season. For the “Stuff Huff” game, held Friday at 7:30 p.m., festivities include a pregame “Color War,” which begins at 6 p.m.

Illinois will be tested on the court in a number of ways with the competition they face this weekend. Arizona State, who the Illini will play at 10 a.m. on Friday, is an extremely fast-paced team, much like the San Diego squad that beat Illinois last week.

“They run a very fast tempo and they’ll push the tempo to the pins and that typically is a good plan against us, so we’ll have to overcome that,” said coach Kevin Hambly.

After playing the Sun Devils, Illinois will enter its annual “Stuff Huff” match against No. 6 Washington, a team that Hambly said has an even distribution of talent.

“They’re tremendously balanced,” Hambly said. “In any rotation, they can set anybody and score, so we’re going to have to be really, really solid in our team defense.”

The weekend will end for Illinois with a Saturday showdown against No. 2 Texas, last year’s national championship team and a squad Hambly said has incredible reach, physicality and athleticism.

“They have a kid that touches 11 feet,” Hambly said. “Our highest kid is (10-foot-6), (10-foot-7) and that’s (Anna) Dorn, and they have four or five kids that are at Dorn’s height. They are the most athletic, highest team in the country, so that should be fun.”

In the week leading up to their final “Stuff Huff,” Illinois’ two seniors have been feeling different emotions. While libero Jennifer Beltran said she is only feeling excitement, Abrahamovich said thoughts of both nostalgia and enthusiasm have crossed her mind.

“Personally it’s a little bit sentimental,” Abrahamovich said. “But I’m just really excited. I’m excited for the freshmen to experience ‘Stuff Huff’ for the first time. Obviously our fans are super excited. I’m seeing things all over campus about it, which is just awesome, it really pumps us up. We’re a little bit anxious, in a good way, to finally play at home because we’ve been gone the last two weekends, so I think it will be really fun.”

Abrahamovich said she appreciates everyone who comes out to support the team and make “Stuff Huff” as special as it is.

“It’s always hot in there, it’s always packed, but it’s always awesome,” Abrahamovich said. “I just can never get enough of it, of everything going on around us. And the support we get is just amazing. It’s just a great event. And this year it’s awesome that we get to play a few teams in the same weekend that are going to challenge us so much.”

In order for the Illini to have success this weekend, the team has been working on making sure to put points away.

“We were just working on siding out,” Beltran said. “Not giving teams runs of points. That’s something we struggled with this weekend, we gave the opponent like five points in a row and with that of course we’re digging ourselves in a big hole, so we just have to stay determined to get the next ball.”

After recording three wins over ranked opponents this season, the Illini may have a good chance of leaving their “Stuff Huff” record unblemished.

“We look at ourselves as one of the best teams in the country,” Beltran said. “We have to, and we think we can go and beat anyone as long as we’re playing our style. As long as we’re working hard and playing with determination we think we’re going to be okay, so we think that we can beat anyone.”

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