5 O'Clock Shadow: No. 1 Illini getting national pub

5 O'Clock Shadow: No. 1 Illini getting national pub

News you can't leave work without: Kevin Hambly's top-ranked Illini are the topic of an AP story that moved nationally Thursday. Here's a portion of David Mercer's well-written piece:

Growing up in a small town across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Michelle Bartsch didn’t know much about the University of Illinois. She wasn’t a fan of Illini volleyball or anything else orange and blue.

“I didn’t really pay attention to the U of I,” she says. “My dad always loved soccer so we’d watch a lot of soccer at home.”

Bartsch was 6-3, a member of a youth national team and an all-around athlete who swam and played basketball, too. So soon-to-be Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly was among a long line of college coaches who kept a close eye on her down in Maryville, talking to her about what he thought the volleyball team in Champaign might be some day if she was part of it.

With one big-time player, he told her, more would follow. And that, who knows?

“I just saw this place as kind of a sleeping giant,” Hambly says now, “that the program was good but maybe not where it should be.”

Bartsch bought in, and now in her senior year heads a deep and talented roster that has the undefeated Illini (20-0, 9-0 Big Ten) ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time.

When Hambly took over in 2009 after four years as an assistant, Illinois had a long history of first-round NCAA tournament exits punctuated by the occasional trip to the regionals and, at least since the `80s, nothing more.

With Bartsch in Champaign, a string of talent followed, mostly Illinois kids.

Among them were two transfers: Annie Luhrsen, who grew up in Wheaton and came to Illinois after a season at Connecticut, and Colleen Ward of Naperville, who played two seasons at traditional power Florida.

Hambly has tried to create a style that’s more like the international volleyball he saw as an assistant with the U.S. Olympic team for parts of four years — reading defensive keys that the players say can help slow down what can be a fast, overwhelming game. And he has tried to create a culture.

The team read a business book together last summer titled “Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” Luhrsen said, then talked about it and applied what they could to volleyball.

“We used a lot of aspects of the book to help our team grow in preseason,” she said. “I think that was kind of unique and fun.”
The work has paid off. The last two seasons ended in the NCAA regionals, but the Illini believed they were close to something better.

So far this season, they’ve been proven right.

In late September they moved into the No. 1 spot, and in early October headed to Penn State, the four-time defending NCAA champion.

Illinois’ players say they didn’t approach that night at Penn State like it was anything more than another game against a strong opponent — nothing special in a conference that right now includes three of the top 10 teams in the country and seven of the top 25. Too much thinking leads to trouble.

“It’s just kind of an air that you feel walking into their gym, that there’s a lot of success and they’ve got a lot of banners and everything,” Luhrsen said. “But you’ve got to sort of isolate yourself from that to do well.”

And do well they did, pulling off a 3-2 win that ended the Nittany Lions’ 68-game Big Ten home winning streak. With that signature win and their lofty ranking, the profile of the team around Champaign-Urbana has changed.

Illinois volleyball has long had a strong following in cozy, 86-year-old Huff Hall. But it now regularly has 1,000 or so boisterous people in what Luhrsen calls “one of the coolest student sections in the country.” Higher-profile Illini athletes like basketball player Brandon Paul are regulars.

And people off campus are paying attention, too.

“I was at the mall the other day and I had three or four people come up to me and tell me, like, `Congratulations, you guys are doing really well,”’ Bartsch said. “That’s never really happened to me before.”