Kevin Hambly's volleyball team is ready to take its act to the State Farm Center for a match against Iowa.
CHAMPAIGN — The portable court at the State Farm Center has been likened to a puzzle.
What sports fans see as a whole is actually 232 separate pieces, most 4 feet by 8 feet.
Thankfully for the workers who regularly assemble — and disassemble — the floor, there’s no guesswork to this puzzle. Each piece is labeled — from A-1 through O-15 — to indicate where it fits.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Tom Divan is immune to some anxiety as the pieces of this puzzle are put together.
“It is very intricate,” the State Farm Center’s director of facility management said. “If you’re off by an eighth of an inch on the first row, as you work your way across, the eighth of an inch continues to expand, where by the time you’re putting in the 15th row, it may be off an inch and a quarter.”
This week, Divan’s crew tackled a variation on the court’s assembly in preparation for the Illini volleyball team’s match Friday night against Iowa at State Farm Center.
Two of the 232 floor pieces will serve a different purpose than the rest. They are the surfaces into which the two poles for the volleyball net system are placed.
What goes into securing those poles, Divan says, “proved to be very challenging.”
How challenging? The setup of the basketball court typically takes between 21/2 and three hours to complete, according to Divan.
“It took us closer to six hours, just with having to deal with the volleyball system,” he said.
The last time the Huff Hall-based Illini volleyball team played at what was then called the Assembly Hall — on Oct. 16, 2009 — a portable net system was used, with the standards suctioned to the court.
When the UI athletic department successfully bid to host an NCAA regional tournament this December, a portable net no longer became an option. The NCAA insists that any net system used in a regional be secured into the court.
About six months ago, the UI purchased a sub-floor mounting apparatus. It allows the poles to be bolted into place.
The trick is to make sure everything lines up — from the opening in the court to the tube that connects it to the sub-floor mount. It’s an exacting process, especially considering the diameters involved at the lower levels.
“We had to get it lined up and hit a hole basically the size of a dime for each standard,” Divan said.
His crew had one more task to prepare for the match. On Wednesday, the floor was taped to temporarily turn a basketball court into one for volleyball.
This won’t be the last time this fall that State Farm Center staff sets up for volleyball. On Dec. 13-14, the Illini will host regional semifinal and final matches. So consider Friday night’s match not only the Big Ten opener for Kevin Hambly’s team but a rehearsal by UI athletic staff and SFC personnel for regionals.
“We are running this exactly like a trial run for the regional,” said Kathy Hug, UI assistant athletic director for event management.
This will be the athletic department’s lone opportunity to do so because it is the Illini’s only home match of the regular season at State Farm Center. That’s not an issue for Hug, who in the past has coordinated with SFC on hosting several NCAA and Big Ten events.
“They’re so easy to work with and we know what to expect with their group,” she said. “I have no problem with doing this (test run) one time (only).”
Hambly was in his first season as Illini head coach when his program last played at State Farm Center four years ago. That night was a rousing success on multiple fronts. Illinois swept 10th-ranked Minnesota in front of a team-record home crowd of 7,632 fans — a turnout whose ranks were swelled by the scheduling of an Illini Madness basketball event that followed.
“I remember it being a very good volleyball venue,” Hambly said. “Like I felt like at the end of it that I really enjoyed it as a volleyball venue.”
It was during this period that UI officials were contemplating putting in a bid for a volleyball regional. Because Huff Hall does not meet the qualifications set by the NCAA for hosting, any UI bid necessarily would have needed to include State Farm Center as the venue.
“And I was very nervous about that,” Hambly recalled. “As we were talking about it I was going, ‘I don’t know if I want to play in this big, giant space.’ And then we played the match. I think winning helped, of course, with the perception of it. But I also felt like it was a really good place to play.”
No current Illini player ever has competed at SFC, but Hambly is confident that the two practices scheduled there this week — one more than before the 2009 match — will be enough for his team to become acclimated to its differences from Huff. The latter is far smaller, with seating much closer to the court. Because of SFC’s expanse, the sightlines and backgrounds for servers and hitters also will be significantly different from Huff.
But Hambly points out that his players have experienced matches in similarly large facilities on the road.
“We’re trying not to make a big deal about it,” he said. “It’s a volleyball match. We’ve played in venues like this other places.
“We’ll have two practices in there. Two practices is plenty to get your eyes used to it.”
Johannah Bangert, now the UI volleyball program’s director of operations, was a junior starter on the last Illini team to play at State Farm Center.
“As a player, I didn’t really notice too much of a difference,” she said. “There wasn’t anything difficult about it.”
What differences Bangert detected were mostly cosmetic. Such as the locker room.
“They’re definitely nicer over at the State Farm Center,” she said.
The size of the crowd certainly was eye-catching, too, for Bangert. The 2009 All-America middle blocker recalls fans rushing into the arena after the doors were opened and scrambling for the best seats, all of which were general admission.
“It was cool to see that there were people outside in this big line waiting to get in and then everybody running as fast as they could to their seats,” she said.
Bangert also remembers that it took “a little” time to get adjusted to the different depth perception at SFC, but she said the crowd atmosphere was similar to Huff, even with fans seated farther from the court.
“We had a good crowd that night (so) that it was still loud,” she said. “As far as the noise and just the people being there, it still had a good vibe to it.”
Now, four years later, State Farm Center again will be the site of serves and spikes and digs. Hug expects that Friday will be like any other Illini home match night. Just in a different venue.
“You prepare the same way,” she said.
Center of attention
A fan-friendly guide to Friday’s 7 p.m. volleyball match between Illinois and Iowa at the State Farm Center:
Admission: Reserved tickets are $7 for adults, $4 for students and youth (under 18). General admission is $5 for adults, $2 for youth (under 18), and free with valid student ID. Football season ticket-holders have received a coupon that can be redeemed at the Illinois Ticket Office for two general-admission tickets to the match.
Purchasing tickets: Single-match tickets available at the Illinois Ticket Office or by calling 1-866-ILLINI-1 .
Parking: The northwest and southwest quadrant lots are open to the public. There is no charge.
Illini volleyball preview
No. 24 Illinois (4-6) vs. Iowa (9-3), 7 p.m., at State Farm Center
No. 24 Illinois vs. No. 12 Nebraska (7-2 entering Friday’s match at Northwestern), 4 p.m., at Huff Hall
Setting the scene: With the Big Ten race now here, it’s an opportunity for a fresh start for the Illini, who can use it. Illinois enters Friday’s conference opener looking to end a four-match losing streak. The two most recent defeats were particularly disappointing to UI coach Kevin Hambly, who saw his Illini swept for the first time this season by then-No. 15 North Carolina before losing in four sets to unranked Duke. “It’s concerning for lots of reasons, mostly because of how we were playing,” Hambly said this week. “We have some work to do. We’re under .500, which is concerning as well. ... They both get my attention.” At 4-6, the Illini will need to go at least 11-9 in the Big Ten to be eligible for the NCAA tournament. The NCAA requires, at minimum, a .500 record to be considered for an at-large bid. Considering that eight Big Ten teams are ranked in the coaches’ Top 25 this week, the Illini face a highly challenging road to the postseason.
Illini update: Hambly indicated that outside hitter Morganne Criswell likely will remain in the starting rotation. Making her first start of the season Saturday at Duke, the junior outside hitter belted 14 kills in 49 swings, both career highs. She also produced a career-best 11 digs against the Blue Devils. In a total of six sets last weekend, Criswell hit .242. Her offensive production was particularly vital because Illinois’ top point producer, outside hitter Jocelynn Birks, struggled mightily. In two matches, the redshirt sophomore managed 16 kills and hit .043 in 94 swings. “She did a nice job in both matches,” Hambly said of Criswell. “She scored points for us ... and we needed some balance, especially since Jocelynn had a rough weekend.” ... Senior libero Jennifer Beltran is within 58 digs of becoming the all-time Illini leader. With 1,864, Beltran continues to close in on Ashley Edinger (2006-09), who finished her career with 1,921 digs. ... Through matches of Sept. 22, Illini redshirt freshman middle blocker Maddie Mayers ranked ninth in the nation and first in the Big Ten in blocks per set (1.46).
About Iowa: The Illini have won 13 consecutive matches against the Hawkeyes, with none going more than four sets. ... Illinois and Iowa have played one common opponent this season, current No. 25 Iowa State. The Illini swept the Cyclones on the road Sept. 8. Iowa lost at home in four sets to Iowa State last Saturday. ... The Hawkeyes have regained the services of several players who missed significant time in 2012 due to injury, including sophomore right-side hitter Erin Radke. The 2011 Gatorade South Dakota Player of the Year was sidelined for the final 16 matches last season with an ACL tear. ... Senior libero Bethany Yeager leads the Big Ten in digs per set (4.56). Through Sept. 22, Iowa ranked 14th nationally in digs. ... The Hawkeyes are utilizing a 6-2 attack this season with senior Nikki Dailey and freshman Alyssa Klostermann at setter. The latter is the daughter of former NFL linebacker Bruce Klostermann (Broncos and Rams).
About Nebraska: Grab a roster sheet because you’ll need it. The Cornhuskers have 10 newcomers this season. Coach John Cook lined up a recruiting class regarded as one of the best, if not the best, in the nation. Four were ranked among the Top 25 prep players in the Class of 2013, a group led by outside hitters Kadie Rolfzen (No. 5) and Amber Rolfzen (No. 8). Each currently is among the top three on the team in kills. Nebraska also added Tennessee transfer Kelsey Robinson, a senior outside hitter and two-time All-American. The Wheaton St. Francis graduate — and two-time News-Gazette All-State first-teamer — leads the Huskers and ranks fifth in the Big Ten in kills per set (4.03). “Nebraska is really young, a bunch of freshmen, but (has) the No. 1 class in the country,” Hambly said. “Good balance; very physical; good middle attack.” ... The Huskers aren’t without some talented returnees, however. Sophomore middle blocker Meghan Haggerty is back after earning honorable-mention All-America honors. So is senior right-side hitter Morgan Broekhuis, who played so well against the Illini last season in Nebraska’s 3-0 sweep at Huff Hall. ... Illinois will look to halt a six-match losing streak against the Cornhuskers, who’ve also won 10 of the last 12 meetings. ... Expect the Illini defense to be put to the test. Through Sept. 22, Nebraska ranked seventh in the nation and led the Big Ten in kills per set (14.88). ... Illinois and the Huskers have played two common opponents this season, and the outcomes were the same. Each swept Iowa State, and each lost in five sets to Texas.