‘Storm the Center’ successful as volleyball rolls

This past weekend saw special events galore from the Illinois Athletics department. It all started on Friday night when volleyball took on the Iowa Hawkeyes at 7 p.m. at State Farm Center.

Soccer also faced Iowa at home on Friday and both teams came out with a win. Wasn’t such a banner weekend for the Hawkeyes, huh?

In the second largest turnout for a volleyball match in Illinois history, the 7,061 Illini faithful made State Farm Center feel like home for a team coming off four consecutive losses.

This was only the third time Illinois volleyball has played at State Farm Center in 39 years of being a varsity sport at the University. The last time was October of 2009 when No. 6 Minnesota came to town. Illinois upset the Gophers three sets to none in front of a record crowd of 7,632.

Fifth-year head coach Kevin Hambly echoed the sentiment of the crowd and expressed his satisfaction with the support.

“It was a great event,” he said. “I’m a little surprised and excited by the crowd turnout.”

Volleyball has perhaps one of the most loyal and consistent student fan sections at Illinois. The ‘Spike Squad’ showed up in full force, dressed head to toe in orange and ready to kick off conference play in style.

The match began with Spike Squad’s famous newspaper stunt. Prior to announcing Illinois’ starting lineup, students hold and shake newspapers in front of their faces, effectively ignoring the opposing team.

Throughout the match, fans standing on bleachers near the court — where men’s basketball’s Orange Krush normally resides — held blown up images of recognizable figures such as Ron Swanson, Abraham Lincoln and ‘Home Alone’s’ Macaulay Culkin.

Talk about keeping strange company.

Illinois volleyball is a pleasure to watch. The match was never really in doubt, but even so, the athletes kept up streams of constant encouragement after every point, whether it was Illinois’ or Iowa’s. After every kill, ace, block or dig the team would huddle and exchange congratulations and advice.

It was immensely obvious that Illinois was enjoying the feeling of winning — and not only winning, but dominating. It was a welcome relief after a disappointing couple of weeks.

“We were ready for a win,” said veteran Liz McMahon. But in a moment of clarity, the junior acknowledged that “playing well gives us more confidence than wins and losses.”

The very next day Illinois would lose to No. 12 Nebraska 3-0. The Cornhuskers shut down the Illini in their return to Huff Hall Saturday afternoon after Friday’s victory. It was Nebraska’s seventh consecutive win. Nebraska has beaten Illinois regularly and handily since it joined the Big Ten in 2011.

Frustration seems to be a recurring theme with this 2013 team. Whether it’s getting frantic when it comes time for set point, or overthinking when it gets behind, the Illini sometimes seem like they could do with some settling down.

“We didn’t come out fighting the same way and maybe focused on the negatives too much instead of focusing on getting back in it and taking advantage of those opportunities,” Hambly said. “I’m disappointed because I thought we could play better.”

So maybe the loss stings, but if the Illini had played their best and still come up short, would McMahon’s claim still hold? Would Illinois be more content with the loss? I don’t know. It never feels good to lose, but maybe it wouldn’t sting so much.

Apart from Illinois volleyball, other sports held special events this past weekend.

It was Dad’s Day on Saturday so campus was flooded with father-daughter and father-son duos heading to the football game — where Illinois effectively demolished an overmatched Miami (Ohio) team — and men and women’s basketball’s “Street Jam.”

Street Jam was held at the corner of Green and Wright Saturday night to introduce the teams and coaches and get fans excited for the coming season. The athletes were dressed in army fatigues to represent the Seal Team training they were put through in the offseason. It was also a classy way to thank our troops and acknowledge the connection being forged between Illinois athletics and the military.

The event was made up of trivia contests, fan involvement, 3-point shooting and a dunk contest to cap it all off. Predictably, fifth-year senior Joe Bertrand came out with the dunk contest crown.

Finally, Illinois soccer held its eighth-annual SoccerFest on Sunday afternoon. Prior to their matchup against Nebraska at 1 p.m., free pizza was provided to the first 1,000 fans along with a petting zoo and a chance to meet the players.

Though the Illini had previously gone 5-1-1 in matches following SoccerFest, they fell to the Cornhuskers 3-2.

Iowa may have struggled in Champaign this weekend, but apparently Nebraska felt right at home.

Good thing football plays in Omaha next weekend, it seems there is some kind of curse that affects Illinois athletes when Nebraska comes knocking.

But let’s not jinx it.

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