Volleyball at Illinois is fun.
That’s the bottom line. There is something intrinsically uplifting and attractive about the sport. You attend with a spouse or a friend, and it’s a pleasurable time well spent.
For the better part of three decades — dating to the mid-1980s when Mike Hebert’s teams went 39-3 and 36-3 — the volleyballers have outperformed women’s basketball in terms of success, attendance and excitement. Earlier this season, basketball coach Matt Bollant spoke from the center of Huff Hall virtually pleading for volleyball fans to help bring his program to that level.
Even those who don’t attend take pride in volleyball accomplishments, much as Orange and Bluebloods celebrate the successes of Mike Small’s golfers that they never see.
Now is the time — as Illinois faces Purdue at 6 p.m. Friday in an NCAA regional — to reflect on the reasons for this phenomenon.
Let’s enumerate the reasons.
(1) Reaching the NCAA title game two years ago accentuated the fact that Kevin Hambly’s athletes are competing at the highest level.
“Reaching the championship (a 3-1 loss to UCLA) allowed our players to believe they belong there,” Hambly said. “We slipped last year because our replacement players didn’t realize how hard you have to work to get there.”
(2) The intimacy of Huff Hall provides an extraordinary atmosphere of excitement, far different from the spacious Farm that hosts women’s basketball.
“It is an awesome feeling at Huff,” said Jennifer Beltran, the UI’s all-time digs leader. “The fans are so close they can reach out and touch you. Other teams tell me that they enjoy playing there.”
(3) Just as female golfers play shorter holes than men, the volleyball net is lower for women than for men. Not so in basketball. When Joseph Bertrand explodes for a court-rocking dunk, that’s something you don’t see in women’s basketball, and the game suffers by comparison.
“Our women are not as tall and they don’t jump as high as the men, so the lower net helps,” Hambly said. “Our sport is a great showcase for the women.”
(4) While men’s basketball is overwhelmingly the dominant indoor sport on campus, this marks the ninth straight season in which the men’s main focus is to simply qualify for the NCAA tournament. The men have won three tournament games in the last eight years and are currently unranked.
This is the 20th Illini women’s team to reach the NCAA tournament since 1985, a run that includes three Final Fours and no first- or second-round losses in 2008-09-10-11-13.
(5) Volleyball is so dominant in the Big Ten that, if Michigan had advanced, the Big Ten would have had eight teams in the Sweet 16. Illinois made the 64-team field with a six-match Big Ten win streak in November and qualified with a modest 16-14 overall record after playing the nation’s toughest schedule.
“This conference and the Pac-12 have made strong commitments to volleyball,” Hambly said. “When I came here, the conference had about six strong teams. Now we have 10. It is extremely competitive everywhere. They all have veteran teams, which is certainly the case with Purdue.”
In the series, Purdue broke a six-match Illini run in 2010 and reversed that by winning five of the last seven matches. Both teams won at home this season.
Perception is reality. Illini fans are bolstered by the belief that Hambly has good players today and even better ones on the way. The committed members of the 2015 class (current high school juniors) promise to be one of the UI’s best ever.
And Illini fans laud the fact that, unlike many male athletes whose professional desires outweigh their education, these athletically inclined women are committed to graduate.
Such is the case with Beltran, who has a job opportunity waiting at an all-girls Catholic grade school in Los Angeles next spring.
Beltran’s story is special. A product of L.A., she is one of three UI team members who participated in the 2011 run to San Antonio, where the Illini defeated No. 1 USC but fell to No. 4 UCLA.
Her mother came from El Salvador as an illegal immigrant at age 21 and has since gained citizenship. At 5-foot-8, Beltran learned to focus on defense and passing techniques because she lacked the size to play the net.
“Passing is a big part of our success in the second half of this season,” Beltran said. “That was our main problem last season and earlier this season. It is crucial to handle the ball when it comes over the net and set it up for the kill.
“We’ve become a different team. We believe we should have defeated Purdue over there, and this is our chance to prove it.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.