The Kevin Hambly era begins Aug. 28 with a match against Tulane.
June 19, 2009
Champaign, Ill. -
Illinois volleyball returns six starters from a 2008 season that saw the Illini reach the program's 10th Sweet 16. To try to better that advancement and challenge for a top spot in the Big Ten, first-year head coach Kevin Hambly has assembled a competitive schedule that should ready the Illini for the post-season as well as bolster seeding in the tournament.
Last year that type of schedule resulted in the Illini garnering the no. 9 overall seed in the tournament. Illinois defeated Milwaukee and Cincinnati at Huff Hall in the first and second rounds before falling in three tough sets to no. 8 California 25-22, 25-22, 25-22 in the Regional Semifinal.
Cincinnati, the last opponent in Huff in 2008, will be the first in 2009 as the Bearcats play the Illini on Sept. 11 in the opening match of the State Farm Illini Classic. The Bearcats finished the season at 27-7 overall and are one of 14 matches Illinois has against teams with 20 or more victories a year ago.
Not only do the Illini play 14 matches against 10 teams that qualified for the 2008 NCAA Tournament, but they face five teams that received the top-16 overall seeds in the tourney, eight that advanced to the second round and three that reached the Sweet 16.
"Every match during our pre-conference portion of our schedule will be extremely challenging," Hambly said. "It should prepare us for the consistent challenge the Big Ten presents. The recruiting in the Big Ten continues to improve and this combined with the incredible coaching in the conference is continually raising the level of the league. It will make for an exciting year."
That tough slate begins right from the top on Aug. 28 with Tulane, who finished 28-6 in 2008 and received the tournament's no. 16 overall seed. Illinois meets the Green Wave in the Bluejay Invitational in Omaha, Neb. The Illini also face host Creighton (18-9) and Big 12 foe Texas Tech in that event.
Illinois has its return trip to New Mexico State the following weekend as one of four teams in the NM State Tournament. The Lobos finished the season 26-9, advancing to the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament. The Illini defeated then no. 23 NMSU in four sets at the 2008 State Farm Illini Classic, one of two ranked victories that day. One of the pre-season favorites in the ACC, Florida State (21-9), and an Italian Club team round out the field.
The State Farm Illini Classic features another tough field with traditional Missouri Valley contender Illinois State (16-14) and Atlantic Ten champion Saint Louis (29-5) joining Cincinnati. Saint Louis, coached by former Illini assistant Anne Kordes, received the no. 13 overall national seed and returns five starters from 2008.
Illinois faces Big East champion Louisville (19-10) and Mid-American conference titlist Ohio University (24-8) at the Purdue Active Ankle Classic Sept. 18-19. Both teams have made noise in recent years in the NCAA Tournament.
The Fighting Illini open the Big Ten season against at home against Ohio State on Sept. 25 before inviting defending national champion Penn State (38-0) on Saturday, Sept. 26. The Lions enter the 2009 season riding a 64-match winning streak and should be the pre-season no. 1 ranked team in the country.
Illinois plays home-and-home with every team in the conference again this year. The Big Ten had five teams in the NCAA Tournament in 2008, four that earned national seeds - Penn State (1), Minnesota (6), Illinois (9) and Purdue (10). Six of the first eight matches of the conference season are at Huff Hall.
The Big Ten Network is expected to release its 20-match schedule soon and could affect dates and times. Fans are encouraged to stay in touch with fightingillini.com for any modifications to the schedule.