CHAMPAIGN — On the day before the Illinois volleyball team played its season opener in Dayton, Ohio, the itinerary included a post-practice dinner.
Illini sophomore Liz McMahon thought nothing of it as the team bus headed south from the University of Dayton campus. Then ...
"The next thing I know, my bus is pulling up to my neighborhood."
It came to a stop in front of Kevin and Janine McMahon's house in Liberty Township, on the far northern outskirts of metro Cincinnati.
Liz McMahon was home, at least for a few hours. And everyone already in the know had kept this part of the trip a secret from the Ohioan.
"It was a surprise to me," McMahon said this week before a practice at Huff Hall. "I was so excited. They ordered all my favorites — food from local places — and I got to hang out at my house."
This weekend, McMahon will be back in familiar territory again when No. 20 Illinois visits Cincinnati for the Big Ten/Big East Challenge. No word on whether there'll be time for the 6-foot-6 right-side hitter to again stop by her house, but McMahon expects to see plenty of friendly faces when the Illini take the court at Fifth Third Arena, home of the hosting Cincinnati Bearcats.
"It's awesome," she said. "It's so exciting to play so close to home. Of course, I told all my friends. They got involved with Illinois volleyball when we went to the Final Four (in December). I got so much (feedback) from Cincinnati (then) so I'm sure they're excited to check up on me again."
With any luck, current members of the Lakota West High School volleyball team will be able to watch one of their most notable alums in action, too. The Firebirds will be in central Ohio on Saturday for a pair of matches but might be able to return in time for the Illini's 4:30 p.m. (EDT) contest against Louisville.
"Many will be racing home to catch the match," Lakota West coach Tracey Kornau said.
McMahon is particularly excited to play in front of her maternal grandmother. Delores Barry hasn't yet been able to make it to Champaign, but she watched her granddaughter play college volleyball in person for the first time last month at Dayton and always closely follows McMahon's progress from a distance.
"She's like my number one fan," McMahon said. "She always watches GameTracker and listens to the (matches on) radio every night. It's just so exciting she (now) gets to see it live."
McMahon herself was a spectator at a Big Ten/Big East Challenge while still in high school. Having orally committed to the Illini in early 2010, she made the trip to Louisville, Ky., that September to watch her future team. And since the Challenge rotates hosting duties among the four participating schools, McMahon figured she might return to Cincinnati at some point in her college career.
"I knew there was a chance that maybe we'd continue the Big Ten/Big East Challenge," the 2011 Big Ten All-Freshman Team selection said.
McMahon remains a big deal at her high school alma mater. She already was playing varsity ball as a 6-1 freshman, and she remains Lakota West's career leader in kills.
"The local volleyball community still follows and asks about Liz," Kornau said. "When Illinois made the Final Four, that was great, and so many people watched on TV."
There probably won't be time this weekend for McMahon to show off the Cincinnati area to her Illini teammates, but if she could, the Preseason All-Big Ten pick would want to serve as tour guide of downtown sites, particularly along the Ohio River.
"Just walk around; there's been a lot of improvement to the parks," she said.
McMahon was born in suburban Chicago and grew up a Cubs fan, but since her family moved to the Cincinnati area, she's warmed to the major league team there, too.
"That would be a lot of fun, to take the team to a Reds game," she said.
McMahon will return to Ohio later this season to play volleyball, when Illinois visits Ohio State for a Big Ten match Nov. 10.
Kornau has her fingers crossed that McMahon & Co. will be within easy driving distance, too, come December.
"We are hoping Illinois makes it to the Final Four again," the Firebirds coach said, "as it is so close to home in Louisville."