Some news and notes on Illini volleyball:
The contract for the Big Ten-Big East Challenge expires after next year, and it’s doubtful Illinois would remain involved if the four-team event continues.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’re kind exploring some (other scheduling) ideas there,” Illini coach Kevin Hambly said this week. “But I don’t think the Big Ten-Big East Challenge will take place with the same teams beyond next year. I think four years is enough.”
The Challenge began in 2009 as a four-match tournament pitting two members from each conference against the other league — Illinois and Purdue of the Big Ten versus Louisville and Cincinnati of the Big East.
Purdue hosted the first Challenge, and the site has since rotated to the campuses of the other participants. Illinois was the host of the third Challenge last weekend, with Cincinnati scheduled to be the site of next year’s.
Hambly likes the idea of an inter-conference challenge but would prefer to see some different teams across the net in the future. He mentioned the possibility of a Big Ten-Big 12 Challenge, perhaps involving Iowa State and Texas. He’d also be open to a Challenge with Pac-12 schools.
“I’d like to maybe explore a different conference, just for fun,” Hambly said. “Something different.”
Hambly indicated he’s already discussed the idea with Nebraska, which could join Illinois as the Big Ten representatives in a future challenge, perhaps as soon as the 2013 season. Another change being considered, Hambly said, would be to hold the challenges at a neutral site.
He stressed that a potential new challenge was merely brain-storming at this point.
“Nothing’s solidified,” Hambly said.
Last Saturday’s 7 p.m. finale of the Challenge at Huff Hall went head-to-head against the Illini football game against a ranked Arizona State team at Memorial Stadium.
To no one’s surprise, attendance at Huff Hall took a tumble. One night after 2,008 fans showed up for Illinois’ match against Cincinnati, the announced attendance for Saturday’s match versus Louisville was 933.
Entering the weekend, the Illini had averaged 1,954 for its first three home matches — so playing at the same time as the Illini football team cut into the typical size of a UI home volleyball crowd by about 1,000. Many of the missing were UI students who are members of the Spike Squad. Also among the missing were community members who are fans of both Illini football and volleyball and were forced to make a choice.
Under the circumstances, Hambly said, “I thought the crowd was actually pretty good.”
Still, he wasn’t happy about the conflict. The Challenge schedule was set long before the Big Ten announced last May that the Illini-ASU football game would start at 6 p.m. and be shown on the Big Ten Network.
Hambly said some consideration was given to moving the Challenge’s Saturday matches to the afternoon. But after talking to the coaches of the other Challenge teams — and taking into account that contracts already had been signed with match officials — he decided to stick with the original schedule.
Before each home match, Hambly conducts a “chalk talk” for the Networkers, the team’s fan support group. On Friday, Hambly said, about 115 showed up for his talk and Q&A session before Illinois played Cincinnati. On Saturday, 70 attended, “which was amazing to me,” Hambly said. “We’ve got some loyal fans.”
During Saturday’s match, observant fans might have noticed that Hambly removed setter Annie Luhrsen for two plays in the fourth set. At the time, Illinois trailed 16-12.
Luhrsen was replaced by right side/outside hitter Jazmine Orozco, meaning the Illini had no true setter on the court. Hambly said he did so to get another blocker in the front row. As it turned out, the maneuver immediately paid off for Illinois. Orozco combined with middle blocker Erin Johnson to block a shot. When Louisville scored on a kill on the next play, restoring its lead to 17-13, Luhrsen returned to the floor in place of Orozco.
So, who served as the Illini’s setter for those two points? “They’re all setters in that situation,” Hambly said, although he clarified that by adding that the plan is to have libero Jennifer Beltran or defensive specialist Rachel Feldman set if either doesn’t make the first contact on a ball hit to Illinois’ side of the next.’
Hambly indicated there could and probably would be other situations this year in which Luhrsen briefly leaves the court in order to put up a bigger block. And, yes, the Illini do practice this particular setup.
“We’ve worked on that a lot in practice,” Hambly said.
Former Illini assistant coach Kent Miller is 4-6 in his first season as head coach at Saint Louis. The Billikens played a challenging nonconference schedule, losing to current No. 9 Minnesota and No. 14 Northern Iowa as well as to Kansas and Tulsa teams that received votes in this week’s AVCA Top 25 poll.
Among the teams Saint Louis defeated were Iowa and Marquette.
The Billikens begin their Atlantic-10 schedule Friday against visiting Charlotte. In a preseason poll of conference coaches, Saint Louis was picked to finish fourth.
Miller isn’t the only ex-Illini on the Saint Louis coaching staff. Sue (Weber) Jacobson is in her first year as a Billikens assistant after serving the previous three seasons at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais. During that span, the Tigers went 96-36, including 30-1 in conference play, and twice appeared in the NAIA tournament.