Home-court advantage? Illini believe they have it

Home-court advantage? Illini believe they have it

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois volleyball enjoys a unique home court advantage at Huff Hall. A warm day outside makes for an even warmer experience in the gym. The close confines mean a big crowd is a loud one, and that's only amplified by the Spike Squad — the Illini student section — just a few feet from the court and the Illini band not much further away.

Home court advantage can sometimes be more notion than reality. Not so at Huff, according to the Illinois players. They believe in it and will welcome having it in their Illini Classic opener at 5 p.m. Friday against Northern Iowa — the first home match of the season for the unbeaten, eighth-ranked team in the country.

"Last year when we played Minnesota here, the crowd was so into it," senior middle blocker Ali Bastianelli said.

The Illini beat the then- No. 7 Golden Gophers in four sets last November in their run up to the NCAA tournament.

"There was so much energy in the gym for Illinois, and I think that really helped us get the momentum and advantage over Minnesota," Bastianelli continued. "Hopefully that carries into this year because we play some really good teams on our home court this year. We're going to need the crowd to be there."

Huff's setup lends itself to that home court advantage. It's something Illinois would lose if it moved to a new home arena given regulations passed since Huff was built in 1925 that dictate bleachers start further away from the field of play.

"We can kind of get away with that," Bastianelli said. "It's pretty great. When the other team's serving (the band) likes to get more in your face. Then the Spike Squad, they always pull so many people in. Having them two feet from the court is just crazy. They're right there in your face. If I were someone coming to play here and didn't play for Illinois, I'd be a little intimidated to have thousands of people feeling like they're on top of you."

Friday's home opener marks the last home opener for Bastianelli and fellow seniors Jordyn Poulter and Blayke Hranicka. The Huff experience is also part of the recruiting draw at Illinois. It helped former Illini coach Kevin Hambly land the No. 1 class in the country in 2015 of Bastianelli, Poulter and redshirt junior outside hitter Beth Prince. Bastianelli was ranked 10th overall, while Poulter was third and the No. 1 setter in the class.

"I think whenever you ask girls that come here, 'Why Illinois?' everyone is like, 'Huff Hall,' " Prince said. "We love it here and we love the environment and the crowd and community support we can get. It's just amazing to play here."

The experience at Huff the Illinois players had as recruits has been easily matched by their experience playing for the Illini. A Huff crowd at its peak is "crazy" and rowdy" according to Bastianelli.

"The fans make Huff what it is," she continued. "It's a big reason why a lot of us are here. We come take visits on gamedays and see the environment, and it's an instant pull for a lot of us."

Illinois will take any and all home court advantage possible with an even more challenging home schedule this season than the slate the Illini have already made it through on the road with a perfect 8-0 record.

Northern Iowa already beat top-25 teams Creighton — Illinois' Saturday night opponent now ranked No. 10 — and Kentucky. The Illini will also host defending national champions and fourth-ranked Nebraska on Sept. 29, No. 6 Wisconsin on Oct. 3 and No. 5 Penn State on Nov. 10.

"We don't really enjoy playing in quiet gyms," Poulter said. "It's not as much fun for us no matter how the result is. I think to have our fans and have them rally behind us against some of these better and bigger teams will be a lot of fun for us this weekend.

"I think (opposing teams) feel some of that pressure throughout the match. That's more to our advantage. Whatever edge we can get on other teams — especially come Big Ten time — is only going to be to our benefit."

Welcome home

The Illinois volleyball team is home for the first time this season, hosting the Illini Classic. A look at what will take place Friday and Saturday at Huff Hall:

FRIDAY

Northern Iowa (5-4) vs. Lipscomb (5-4), 10 a.m.

Illinois (8-0) vs. Northern Iowa, 5 p.m.

Creighton (6-3) vs. Lipscomb, 7 p.m.

SATURDAY

Northern Iowa vs. Creighton, 10 a.m.

Illinois vs. Lipscomb, noon

Illinois vs. Creighton, 7 p.m.

Friday on WDWS 1400-AM

TUNE IN: Dave Loane is on the call for the Illini's home opener at 5 p.m. against Northern Iowa.

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