Asmussen | Spike Squad supplies an electric vibe at Huff Hall

Asmussen | Spike Squad supplies an electric vibe at Huff Hall

Here's what you won't hear from the Spike Squad at today's Illinois-Marquette volleyball match: swearing and names of the opposing names.

Here's what you will hear: everything else.

"I think a big part of our job is just to get the crowd energetic," Spike Squad co-chair Andrew Martin said.

Energetic can turn into bothersome for the opponents.

"We have a line that we won't cross," Martin said. "It's easy to be extremely annoying in a way that doesn't break the rules."

Clever is cool. Crude is not.

Though today's match is right in the middle of prime class time at 11 a.m., there will be 75 seats filled by the volleyball student boosters.

The tickets were claimed quickly, within the first three hours they became available.

Martin plans to be there.

"I have class, but I am going to the match," the junior education major from Bloomington said.

The Spike Squad has a simple goal: support the team. The louder the better.

During the regular season, the Spike Squad members go to the matches for free. But the revenue-driven NCAA is in charge now, meaning someone has to pay for the students. The team's booster group The Networkers is picking up the tab.

The Spike Squad requested 100 tickets for the opening weekend and filled the seats. With the potential for class conflicts the Spike Squad lowered its request to 75 tickets.

"We probably should have requested more," Martin said.

The students sit near the court, on the sides and baseline.

Martin first started going to volleyball matches as a freshman.

He has been an Illinois basketball fan for life, visiting to the State Farm Center with his dad James as long as he can remember.

His original plan was to be part of the Orange Krush. He was offered a chair for the Olympic sports and he took it.

"It was an amazingly good decision for me," Martin said.

Three years into his volleyball fandom, Martin has barely played the sport. Last season, there was a Spike Squad scrimmage.

"I was not good." Martin said. "I can serve. That's about it."

In their corner

Second-year Illinois coach Chris Tamas is a big fan.

"Spike Squad, since Day One, we've wanted to be really good friends with them," Tamas said. "They're our biggest supporters."

Tamas has proof. Last year. Spike Squad members drove to Penn State for the regional semifinal.

Thanks to the Illini earning the No. 3 seed, no long-distance trip is needed. Just a quick walk to Huff Hall. The Spike Squad knows it well.

"They've been with us this whole way," Tamas said. "They've grown their section quite a bit as well. Between them and our other fellow student-athletes that are able to pack the gym, whenever you can get 500, 600 or 700 students in there it adds to the environment"

Because of the conflict with classes today, some of the students might not be able to make it.

Tamas took to Twitter to do his part.

"Working hard on those excused absence notes. I'll see you on Friday," Tamas wrote.

Julia Greuel, a junior recreation-sports-tourism major from Teutopolis, is Illini Pride vice president of Olympic sports.

"It's quite a bit to manage, but it's a lot of fun. It's definitely what my passion is in college," she said.

Greuel wasn't thrilled when she first heard about the 11 a.m. start time.

"We're trying to make the best of it," she said.

Her schedule worked out well. She has class at 9 a.m.

Her teacher for the class is Don Hardin, longtime Illinois volleyball coach.

Greuel has some advice for those on the fence.

"I would definitely say this is a reason to skip class," she said. "Something like this isn't going to happen every single year you're in school. It may not happen for another 10 years. It's definitely an opportunity I think that our students need to take advantage of."

Hailey Buffone, a junior advertising major from Chicago, doesn't have to skip class to attend today. But she had rearrange her work schedule.

She is the current president of Illini Pride. She wants to help the players and the program.

"They're like celebrities to us," Buffone said. "Our job is really to be excited about volleyball. That really is the bottom line."

Success breeds support

The Spike Squad is part of the larger umbrella organization Illini Pride. There are student booster groups for almost every varsity sport.

The two most prominent are the Orange Krush (men's basketball) and Block I (football).

Currently those sports are struggling. The basketball team is just 2-7 and the football team is on a 9-27 run.

"I would say there's kind of apathy around some of our revenue sports," Martin said. "And that's what a lot of people hear about. So when they come here, incoming freshmen are either, in my opinion, very interested in doing Block I and trying out Illini athletics or they already think it's all bad, so they don't care."

Martin has gained an appreciation for volleyball. His goal to add more followers.

Illinois volleyball wins. At a high level. And has for years.

"I guess it just gets hard to convince people to come try," Martin said. "Even though it's free and we give you free food and you get a free shirt.

"I've been up there in the front. I see how hard these players work and how hard the team works."

Once the students watch a match, they frequently get hooked.

Road trip?

The Spike Squad members have their fingers crossed. If the Illini beat Marquette today and the winner of Wisconsin-San Diego match on Saturday, the team is going to next week's Final Four in Minneapolis.

The Spike Squad wants to be there. But there are some obstacles. Like the 512 miles between Champaign-Urbana and the Target Center. That's eight hours if you make a stop for lunch.

"We would definitely love to," Greuel said. "We are a little worried about the logistics of getting there. Tickets are looking pretty pricey."

There are more classes scheduled for next week and finals coming up. Skipping a day or two early in the semester might be OK. But parents paying big tuition bills wants their kids to finish strong. A volleyball jaunt, even for the Final Four, might be a tough ask.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

-