Illini check in at No. 29 in preseason coaches' poll
CHAMPAIGN — Coming off a losing season, the Illinois volleyball team not surprisingly isn’t ranked in the coaches’ preseason Top 25.
However, the Illini are firmly on the radar of voters for the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s national poll, which was announced Monday.
Illinois ranked fourth among other schools receiving votes — with 49 points — and 29th overall in the balloting.
As Kevin Hambly typically does on the subject of rankings, the fifth-year Illini head coach downplayed the show of support for a program that finished 14-16 last year.
“I don’t know what it means and I don’t get that caught up in all of that,” he said. “If people think we have a good team, that’s great, but we just really judge ourselves by what we do ourselves.”
Illinois must replace two 2012 starters — a setter and a middle blocker — but returns five players with a combined nine seasons of experience in the regular rotation. Three of those players — outside/right-side hitter Liz McMahon, middle blocker Anna Dorn and libero Jennifer Beltran — were starters for the Illini’s NCAA runner-up team in 2011.
Such experience apparently persuaded some AVCA voters to put the 2013 Illini on their preseason ballot, although not enough to crack the Top 25.
“I didn’t expect to be ranked,” Hambly said. “The fact is, when people vote, a lot depends on last year. You’re thinking about last year.”
If the AVCA voters are right, Hambly’s latest team faces a formidable 2013 schedule. Led by No. 1 and defending national champion Texas, Illinois will face 12 teams ranked in the preseason Top 25 in a total of 18 matches.
Besides the Longhorns, Illinois’ nonconference schedule includes No. 5 Washington, No. 15 Iowa State, No. 17 Kentucky and No. 18 Florida State.
In addition, seven of the Illini’s Big Ten peers made the Top 25: No. 2 Penn State, No. 6 Minnesota, No. 7 Michigan, No. 10 Nebraska, No. 14 Michigan State, No. 16 Purdue and No. 23 Ohio State.
Illinois will face Minnesota once and the others twice apiece.
The Illini schedule also includes matches against four opponents that appeared on at least two ballots: San Diego, North Carolina, Long Beach State and Wisconsin.