Record Fan Support Helps Illinois Tackle Toughest Schedule in the Nation
Jan. 17, 2014
Champaign, Ill. - On Oct. 30, 2013, the Illinois volleyball team found itself in a difficult position, sitting at 9-12 on the season, due in large part to having faced the toughest schedule in the nation. With the knowledge that they must finish the regular season with a record of at least 15-15 to be eligible for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, the Fighting Illini shouldered the pressure and turned their season around with a six-match winning streak, capturing their 15th victory of the season at Ohio State on Nov. 22 to climb back into the AVCA top-20 and secure a shot at a run in the postseason.
A driving force behind the Illini's late-season success was the Illini Faithful who came out in droves to support the Illinois program, averaging a school record of 3,117 fans per match and marking down the largest volleyball-only crowd ever in Champaign, when 7,061 fans filled State Farm Center to watch Illinois take down Iowa in straight sets to begin Big Ten play. Illinois finished the season ranked seventh in the nation with 49,871 fans witnessing Illini volleyball in 2013, a total that is second only to the 1992 season (52,666), when Illinois set a then-NCAA attendance record over 17 home matches.
The Illini overcame many obstacles in 2013, finishing fourth place in the Big Ten, which established itself as the strongest conference in the nation with seven teams advancing to the NCAA Regional and conference member Penn State defeating fellow-Big Ten team Wisconsin in the first-ever all-Big Ten National Championship match. They also played one of the most difficult nonconference schedules in NCAA history, as all nine opponents were listed in the AVCA poll the week of competition, including hosting top-10 teams Washington and Texas, who both advanced to the Final Four.
In total, Illinois played 22 matches against teams ranked in the AVCA top-25 the week of competition, shattering the previous season record of 15 set in both 2011 and 2012. Stanford is the only team in the NCAA ever to play more matches against ranked competition, most recently facing 23 in 1996 en route to its third national title in five years, while setting the unofficial record at 30 back in 1982, the first season of the AVCA poll. The Fighting Illini captured 10 victories out of those 22 matches, sitting just one shy of the 2011 Illini, who went 11-4 against top-25 teams. Conversely, the Orange and Blue took care of business against weaker teams, as 13 of their 15 losses came to teams that finished the season in the AVCA Final Poll while they went 12-2 against those that ended outside top 25.
Illinois found strong leadership behind senior libero Jennifer Beltran, who posted her fourth-straight 500-dig season for the Fighting Illini, becoming Illinois' all-time digs leader with 2,220 for her career and finishing her campaign ranked second all-time in Big Ten history. In her time with the Illini, Beltran recorded four of the top-7 single-season dig marks at Illinois, putting up a 526 from the back row in 2013 to rank third in the Big Ten. For her success, Beltran was honored with an AVCA All-America Honorable Mention along with an AVCA All-Northeast Region selection.
After an outstanding rookie campaign, sophomore Jocelynn Birks continued to be Illinois' go-to attacker on the outside, becoming just the third Illini to register back-to-back 500-kill seasons, adding 278 digs, 76 blocks and 28 service aces. After two seasons with Illinois, Birks ranks second in the NCAA among active players in career attacks per set and ninth in career kills per set, placing in the top 40 nationally in both kills and points on the year. Following the season, Birks was named Third Team AVCA All-America, AVCA All-Northeast Region and garnered a unanimous All-Big Ten selection.
Junior Liz McMahon had a successful season opposite Birks in the front row, tallying 391 kills and 100 blocks to garner AVCA All-Region and All-Big Ten honorable mentions. McMahon finished the season hot, hitting at least .400 with double-digit kills in three of the final five matches of the year, including hitting .406 with 17 kills and five blocks against No. 22 Marquette to help send Illinois to the NCAA Regional.
Classmate Anna Dorn battle back from offseason knee surgery to mark down another successful season, hitting .335 with 111 kills and 109 blocks. The middle blocker enters her final season with the Illini ranked sixth in career hitting percentage (.351), 10th in block assists (385) and 12th in total blocks (399). Off the court, Dorn continued her success in the classroom, earning her second-consecutive Capital One Academic All-District First Team selection. The pre-med Kinesiology major became just the fourth Illini to earn back-to-back first-team honors, and was joined by six of her teammates on the Academic All-Big Ten team: Courtney Abrahamovich, Julia Conard, Morganne Criswell, McMahon, Kathryn Polkoff and Ali Stark.
The 2013 season kicked off on the West Coast, when the Illini traveled to California for the Long Beach State Mizuno Invitational. The Orange and Blue opened the year with a head-turning 3-0 victory over No. 18 Florida State, and after falling in four to the host 49ers, the Illini knocked off their second-straight ranked opponent with a five-set win over No. 17 Kentucky to capture the tournament title. Birks was named MVP of the weekend, putting up 22 kills against both FSU and UK, while Beltran was named the All-Tournament Libero. Redshirt freshman Maddie Mayers lit it up in her Orange and Blue debut by hitting .625 with 11 kills and four blocks against the Seminoles. She topped that with 13 kills and nine blocks to lead Illinois past the Wildcats, earning a spot on the All-Tournament Team, while also collecting the first Big Ten Freshman of the Week award of 2013.
Illinois headed to Ames the following weekend to face a pair of top-15 opponents at the Iowa State Challenge. The Illini were stuffed, 3-1, by No. 14 San Diego, then finished the weekend strong with a sweep of No. 11 Iowa State, which pushed Illinois to its highest ranking of the season, coming in at No. 14 in the AVCA poll the following Monday.
The Fighting Illini returned to Huff Hall on Sept. 13-14 to host the Illini Classic, featuring high class competition in Arizona State, No. 6 Washington and No. 2 Texas, none of which had come to Champaign in over 20 years. Head Coach Kevin Hambly captured his 100th career victory in Illinois' home opener, when the Illini outlasted Arizona State, 3-2, including a 17-15 win in the fifth set. Hambly became the third Illinois coach to reach the 100-win milestone, doing so in just 138 matches.
Illinois evened the score with the Huskies 1-1 at the eighth-annual Stuff Huff match, but the Illini were unable to win another set over the would-be Final Four squad, falling in four. The following night, Illinois faced off with Defending National Champion No. 2 Texas, who was hungry to defeat the Illini after falling in five at home exactly one year earlier. The match was as tight as they come, as the teams split the first two sets at 25-23 each. The Longhorns cruised past Illinois, 25-13, in the third, but the Orange and Blue bounced right back to take the fourth, 26-24, and send it to five once again. Texas had an early lead, but back-to-back kills by Birks tied the score at 10. Nonetheless, UT found momentum down the stretch, winning five of the last six points to top Illinois 15-11 on their home floor.
The nonconference season did not get much easier the next weekend, as the Illini hit the road for ACC opponents No. 15 North Carolina and Duke. The Tar Heels proved they belonged in the top 15 with a 3-0 sweep of the Illini, and then-unranked Duke stunned Illinois with a come-from-behind win in four sets. The Blue Devils would go on to win the ACC title and finish #14 in the RPI.
The four-match skid hit the Illini hard, as they entered Big Ten play with a 4-6 mark on the season, meaning that they would need to go at least 11-9 against the best conference in the country in order to have a shot at the postseason.
The Big Ten season opened on a high note, as Illinois hosted Iowa at State Farm Center in a dry run for the NCAA Regionals, which the Illini were pre-selected to host in December. An astounding crowd of 7,061 fans came through the turnstiles to cheer on the Illini as they swept the Hawkeyes in the conference opener. The Illini Faithful put on another strong showing in Illinois' return to Huff Hall the following evening, but despite nearly 3,500 fans rooting on the Orange and Blue, No. 12 Nebraska took down Illinois, 3-0, on the Big Ten Network.
The Illini suffered another tough loss the following Friday in East Lansing, falling 3-0 to a scorching hot No. 9 Michigan State squad who was fresh off a weekend sweep at No. 1 Penn State and No. 13 Ohio State. The Orange and Blue then headed to Ann Arbor to take on No. 14 Michigan on the Big Ten Network. Finding themselves in a 1-2 hole after demoralizing set losses of 25-15 and 25-10, Illinois powered itself all the way back to defeat the Wolverines in five sets and claim another weekend split.
The stretch of ranked opponents on the road continued the following week, as the Illini took on No. 20 Purdue at Mackey Arena in front of a hostile crowd of over 5,000. Illinois outlasted the Boilermakers, 31-29, in a marathon first set, but PU rebounded to top the Illini in four with a pair of 25-23 wins for yet another rough setback for the Orange and Blue.
Beltran broke the Illinois career digs record the following night in a sweep at Indiana, then Illinois finally returned home to host another pair of ranked opponents, No. 4 Penn State and No. 17 Ohio State. For the second straight year, Illinois watched a lead over the Nittany Lions slip away at Huff Hall, as the Illini led 1-0 and 16-9 in the second set, yet dropped the frame 25-22 and, after an 11-11 tie in the fifth, lost 15-12 for another soul-crushing loss.
The Illini continued the trend of splitting weekends by taking down Ohio State, 3-1, on Oct. 20, but the Illini needed a weekend sweep to reach that necessary 15-win plateau.
Illinois headed up-state to visit Northwestern and soon took a 2-0 match lead in Evanston. However, the Wildcats stormed back to win the next three sets and top the Illini 3-2 in a gut-wrenching loss that would be hard to forget. However, the Orange and Blue needed to do just that the following Sunday, facing a tough Wisconsin squad on the road who would go on to make an unprecedented run to the NCAA title match. Illinois once again led 2-0, then dropped an ugly 25-10 third frame, but unwilling to allow a repeat of NU, the Illini finished off the Badgers in four to complete the first half of Big Ten play at 5-5.
The road trip carried on the next Wednesday, when the Illini played in front of over 8,000 fans at Devaney Center in Lincoln, but the No. 11 Huskers proved too much for Illinois, as the Illini found themselves sitting at 9-12 on the year, staring elimination straight in the eyes.
But the Illini would not back down.
Illinois topped Iowa, 3-0, to conclude the grueling road stretch, which included four separate road trips over a span of 12 days, then finally returned to Huff Hall for six of the final eight matches of the regular season. The Illini found themselves in an 0-2 hole to No. 17 Michigan, but a game-changing pep talk in the locker room sent a fresh team back onto the court--late, awarding the Wolverines a free point to start the third--but the Illini would not need it, as the Orange and Blue stormed back to snatch the next three sets from Michigan and upset UM in five once again on BTN.
The Illini kept it going that weekend against No. 13 Michigan State, topping the Spartans in four, then cruised past Indiana and No. 18 Purdue in back-to-back sweeps to move above .500, 14-13, for the first time since Sept. 13.
No. 20 Illinois was then forced to leave the solace of Huff Hall, still in need of one more win, for a trip to Ohio State and No. 2 Penn State. The Illini looked as confident as ever in Columbus, capturing that elusive 15th win in four sets, before the winning streak finally stopped at six in State College.
The Illini returned home the night before Thanksgiving, determined to avenge the nightmare in Evanston, and swept Northwestern, before dropping the final contest of the year to No. 11 Minnesota, finishing out the regular season with a 16-14 record and ranked No. 18 in the AVCA poll.
After playing such a torturous regular season schedule, far and away the toughest in the nation, the Fighting Illini were rewarded with the No. 13 overall seed for the 2013 NCAA Tournament, leading to an opportunity to host up to four matches in Champaign. As Illinois was a pre-selected NCAA Regional host, the Illini would not have to play another road contest unless they reached the Final Four.
The Illini began the postseason with a swift 3-0 victory over Morehead State, then stuck it to No. 22 Marquette, 3-1, to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the 14th time in program history. Hosting for the first time since 1992, Illinois had a unique path to the Final Four--the Illini's regional was complete with teams that they had not only faced but defeated earlier in the season, starting with No. 19 Purdue. Despite having topped the Boilermakers in three sets at Huff Hall just four weeks earlier, Illinois did not emerge as the toughest team on the court, surrendering a 24-21 lead in the first set (28-26) as the Illini's season came to an end with a 3-0 loss to the conference foe.
Despite an abrupt ending to the year, the 2013 Illini established themselves as one of the toughest teams around, willing to take on any team, any day, anywhere. The Illini finished the season ranked 16th in both the AVCA poll and the final RPI.