Tate: This program has staying power
Illini men's basketball produced quality teams for years, and reached the national championship game in 2005. It failed to capitalize, slipping gradually into also-ran status.
Volleyball has a similarly positive history, and reached the NCAA final in 2011. OK, Kevin Hambly: Where do the Illini go from here?
Arrows appear to be pointing straight up. Count the reasons:
(1) Whereas the UI ceased to be a destination point for elite Midwestern basketball stars, Hambly owns the Chicago suburbs, actually poached Indiana for a young standout (Munster's Anna Dorn) and has attracted quality transfers (Colleen Ward, now departed, and senior setter Annie Luhrsen). Hambly has three commitments already assured for 2013 and another in 2015.
(2) Hambly has won wide respect in his field, having played and coached nationally and internationally. He was best man at Olympic coach Hugh McCutcheon's wedding. Any list of the top 10 volleyball coaches in the NCAA would have him in it.
(3) Athletic director Mike Thomas keeps volleyball on a pedestal. He extended Hambly's contract, improved the team's travel arrangements, and is developing a three-year plan for massive improvements (new floor, new seating) at Huff Hall.
(4) Unlike basketball, where the pre-Big Ten home slate is routinely weak, Hambly schedules with the RPI in mind. Iowa State comes to Huff on Aug. 31 with a veteran team that barely missed the Final Four. The result is 900 advance season ticket sales and the likelihood of many turnouts over 2,000.
Change is good
The momentum has been increasingly strong since Hambly made the smooth transition for Don Hardin after the 2008 season.
The Illini looked like worldbeaters early in 2010, whipping powers Texas and Penn State, only to see the run disrupted when All-American Laura DeBruler (now on the staff) was sidelined. After that disappointment, seniors Ward and Michelle Bartsch sparked the stunning tournament run in 2011 before losing in the title match to UCLA, 3-1.
"We lost our last match so we're anxious to get started," Hambly said Friday. "I did not schedule light. It'll take time for some of our players to adjust."
Spring and summer workouts have led Hambly to expect big things from the 6-foot-3 Dorn and the 6-6 Liz McMahon. McMahon will be an outside hitter, while Dorn and 6-3 Erin Johnson provide strength in the middle.
A new player to watch: freshman Alexis Viliunas of LaGrange Lyons. The sister of former Illini walk-on Eddie Viliunas, who enters his senior football season as a markedly improved tight end (you'll notice No. 83), 6-1 Alexis is deemed so versatile she can both set the ball and make kill shots at the net.
Hambly will watch today's Olympic volleyball final as the U.S. women go for the gold.
"I've coached a bunch of those kids," he said, "and I have a lot of friends over there."
Hambly was an assistant on the U.S. national team as far back as 2001, and then became head coach of the USA women's national training team. He has remained a consultant for USA volleyball during tryouts.
Success against France would cap a marvelous Olympic run for U.S. women in London. From Serena to Gabby, from soccer to water polo, from Allyson Felix to Misty and Kerri, the women have captured more than two dozen gold medals and roughly three-fourths of the U.S. first-place total.
Another UI coach, Tonja Buford-Bailey, can be proud of her work with the sprinters. This kind of involvement adds up in terms of prestige that spills onto the UI campus.
Young athletes tend to follow success. Illinois is on the verge of becoming, in volleyball, what Ohio State and Michigan are in football, what Duke and Kansas are in men's basketball.
Even as Nebraska draws more fans and Penn State owns multiple championships, Illinois is an attractive destination for premier volleyball players. As long as that continues, the UI's growing fan base will have plenty to cheer about.
Next up: Tuesday's volleyball 101 session (a chance to learn about the sport) at the Business Instruction Facility east of Huff. The alumni exhibition is next Saturday.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.