Huff often provides UI volleyball advantage

Huff often provides UI volleyball advantage

CHAMPAIGN — There’s no place Kevin Hambly would rather be this weekend than Huff Hall.

The 82-year-old brick building that serves as home base for Hambly’s Illinois volleyball program might not be modern. It might not have comfortable seating. Or air conditioning. Or nearly enough restrooms to easily accommodate the 3,000-plus fans that are drawn to Illini home matches these days.

But you’ll never dissuade the fifth-year UI head coach and 10th-year staff member that Huff isn’t one of college volleyball’s facility gems. A facility that will host first- and second-round matches of the NCAA tournament starting Friday.

“I don’t care about the air conditioning; it makes us tougher,” Hambly said. “I don’t care about the fact that it’s an old venue. It makes it unique, and it’s got character. I think Huff Hall’s an incredible venue, and it’s historic.”

And, Hambly might have added, historically good to Illini volleyball teams. Since moving from Kenney Gym to Huff in 1990, Illinois has won more than 71 percent of its matches at the venerable venue.

Hambly and his Illini coaching predecessors can point to multiple reasons for this long-standing success. With a few exceptions, Illinois has ranked among the nation’s leaders in attendance for years and, with a current average crowd figure of 3,037, is seriously threatening the program record of 3,098.

The relatively small confines of the gym enhance the decibel level of one of the most engaged and knowledgeable fan bases in the sport. And the close proximity of the stands to the court can give opponents the feeling that the fans are, if not on top of them, then perhaps breathing down their necks.

“Our fans give great energy, and it’s ridiculously loud in here,” said Illini junior outside hitter Morganne Criswell, a Decatur native who began attending UI home matches while in the fifth grade.

No doubt, the homecourt atmosphere and environment provide Illinois volleyball with some major advantages against visiting opponents. But, as those rare seasons when the home record is ordinary or worse do attest, there are limits to the Huff Effect.

Some may point to this season’s 7-5 record at Huff as an example, but some perspective is necessary. In a year in which Illinois tackled a schedule ranked by the NCAA as the toughest in the nation, those five defeats came against opponents seeded Nos. 1, 2, 3, 8 and 10 in the NCAA tournament.

A fairer example was evident in 2012, when an Illini team that finished with a losing record went 5-7 on its home court. Don’t blame the crowd support or environment. That season, the program averaged 2,809 fans at Huff, which ranked ninth nationally.

“If you’re not good, you’re not good,” Hambly said. “And you’ll be exposed.”

The passion exhibited by fans at Huff can even create an awkward atmosphere at times when the home team is struggling. No, you won’t hear booing, but when the crowd’s vocal urging doesn’t bring results, after a while the collective letdown in the stands is almost palpable.

And Illini players can sense it.

“As much as we feed off the crowd, we can tell when they’re disappointed,” Criswell said. “They want us to win just as bad as we want to win. So when we’re down a couple of points or we’re not doing as well as everybody would like, you can tell that they’re not happy.”

At times, Hambly believes the crowd’s anxiety can be far too premature.

“I do think that sometimes the crowd hurts (the team) because they get anxious,” he said. “ You can sense the anxiety and it’s like, ‘Guys, just relax for a moment. Let us get our legs underneath and we’re going to be fine.’ ”

Hambly says he has addressed this issue with his team.

“If you’re struggling, there’s going to be this kind of (crowd) anxiety,” he said. “You have to learn to manage that as a player, and I think they think it’s going to be really easy, and it’s not. It does have an effect. If things are going bad, it can pull you down a little bit.”

This is a two-edged sword, however. When the Illini are playing well, their fans let the players — and the opponent — know it in no uncertain terms with their high-decibel chants and cheers.

“As soon as we start picking it up, they start picking it up, and I think that’s what makes it really hard for opponents,” Criswell said.

And makes Huff, in Hambly’s opinion, one of the best atmospheres in college volleyball.

“I think it’s awesome that (the fans) care so much,” he said. “You go to some venues and they don’t care. They’re not even cheering. This place cares a lot. The kids know that and they want to perform for the fans.”

Home cookin’ for Illini

In its history, the Illini volleyball program has won 71.4 percent of its home matches, including 71.1 percent at Huff Hall. A look at the yearly record since 2000:

2013    8-5*    16-14
2012    5-7    14-16
2011    16-1    32-5
2010    14-1    24-9
2009    14-1*    26-6
2008    13-3    26-8
2007    5-8    16-14
2006    7-7    15-15
2005    6-7    16-15
2004    10-3    19-11
2003    14-1    26-7
2002    6-6    13-16
2001    11-4    21-9
2000    5-8    13-18
* — Includes one match at State Farm Center

Four on the floor
A look at the teams competing at Huff Hall this weekend, courtesy staff writer JEFF HUTH:

ILLINOIS (16-14)
AVCA ranking: No. 18
NCAA RPI: No. 20
Coach: Kevin Hambly (fifth year, 112-50)
Top players: Jennifer Beltran (Sr. L);
Jocelynn Birks (So. OH); Liz McMahon (Jr. RS)
About the Illini: After a one-year absence, Illinois returns to the tournament for the fifth time in six years. The Illini’s postseason quest was in doubt into the final month of the regular season, but a 7-2 surge down the stretch made Illinois tournament eligible with room to spare. Combined with the nation’s No. 1 strength of schedule and a tie for fourth place in a Big Ten Conference that produced eight tournament teams, Illinois received a coveted national seed (No. 13) and the right to host the first and second rounds. In their previous four NCAA tournaments, dating back to 2008, the Illini never have failed to make it to the regional semifinals (top 16).

AVCA ranking: none
NCAA RPI: No. 95
Coach: Jaime Gordon (11th year, 228-130)
Top players: Aryn Bohannon (Sr. OH); Leslie Schellhaas (Sr. L); Courtney Smith (So. OH)
About the Eagles: Morehead State will make its second NCAA tournament appearance after winning the Ohio Valley Conference tournament for the second time in three years. The Eagles also won the league’s regular season title for the fourth straight year, rolling to a 15-1 record. The lone loss, on Nov. 12 at Eastern Kentucky, ended the nation’s longest conference regular-season winning streak at 36. Schellhaas, who became Morehead state’s career leader for digs in the OVC tournament title match, earlier was named OVC Defensive Player of the Year. Bohannon and Smith joined her on the all-conference team.

AVCA ranking: No. 22
Coach: Bond Shymansky (fifth year, 117-44)
Top players: Autumn Bailey (Fr. OH); Elizabeth Koberstein (Sr. S); Meghan Niemann (Fr. MB)
About the Golden Eagles: Winner of 14 straight matches and 20 of its last 21, Marquette entered the national rankings last week for the first time in program history. It’s been a season of firsts for the Golden Eagles, who until this year never had won a conference regular-season title. Neither had they ever captured the Big East tournament title until crossing that off their list last weekend. Marquette is making its third straight NCAA trip and will open against a familiar opponent — former Big East member Louisville. A Golden Eagles senior class led by Big East Player of the Year Koberstein has a career record of 99-33.

AVCA ranking: none
NCAA RPI: No. 42
Coach: Anne Kordes (third year, 72-17)
Top players: Emily Juhl (Sr. OH); Maya McClendon (Fr. OH); Caitlin Welch (Sr. L)
About the Cardinals: Louisville might have moved to a new conference this year, but the results continue to be the same. By winning the inaugural American Athletic Conference title, the Cardinals increased their number of regular season and tournament league crowns to 26. This also will be Louisville’s 24th NCAA tournament appearance. Huff Hall is familiar territory for Kordes, who served as an Illini assistant coach from 1999 to 2003, when the program reached the national tournament three times. The name McClendon should be familiar, too. The younger sister of Penn State three-time All-American Deja McClendon is the daughter of former Centennial High basketball great Roger McClendon.