CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois volleyball team is returning to its home away from home Friday night.
The Illini can only hope the State Farm Center will be as good to them during the Champaign Regional as the program’s much-beloved home base: Huff Hall.
“I guess I’m still a little bit disappointed that we’re not playing here because I love Huff,” UI coach Kevin Hambly said this week following practice at the venerable venue named for George Huff, the school’s legendary athletic director from 1901 to ’35.
“But there’s something special about going to the regional and knowing that you’re playing for the Final Four. I think that’s good for our group to go to a different venue, be on a different floor. ... (But) I think there’ll be some comfort level that we’ll have.”
The Illini aren’t strangers to the 16,618-seat facility formerly known as the Assembly Hall. As a regional host, Illinois was required by the NCAA to play at least one match at State Farm Center during the season — a kind of test run for staging Sweet 16 and Elite Eight contests.
The Illini did so on Sept. 27 in their Big Ten opener against Iowa. Ten UI players got on the floor that night, when they were cheered on by the second-largest home crowd — 7,061 fans — in program history.
“It was exciting,” redshirt freshman middle blocker Maddie Mayers said. “It was exciting to look around and just see that massive arena and just see all the fans there. ... There’s just something about playing at such a big place. It was cool to see.”
Not that you’ll find any Illini lobbying to leave the cozy confines of 4,500-seat Huff Hall full time for State Farm Center. Yes, the success factor certainly figures into that view. Since moving from Kenney Gym to Huff in 1990, Illinois has won 71.3 percent of its matches there. But it’s much more than that.
“I just love the atmosphere in Huff and having the crowd so close,” redshirt sophomore outside hitter Jocelynn Birks said. “It’s just a different atmosphere than you can get anywhere else. And I think we all love that about it.”
Fan proximity might be the most noticeable difference between the two venues for Illini players. Although State Farm Center’s seating capacity dwarfs Huff Hall’s, those seats are much farther removed from the court.
“At Huff, the crowd is just right on top of you,” Mayers said. “And it’s kind of a different atmosphere at State Farm, I think. The crowd’s a lot further away.
“It’s a lot bigger arena, so the atmosphere is not as excited, if that makes sense. But obviously we’re going to have a lot of fans, just like we did when we played there a few weeks ago, so I’m so excited. It’s going to be fun.”
Because State Farm Center is a much larger space than Huff Hall, the backgrounds and sight lines from court level can be an adjustment for Illini players.
Members of the UI program compare it to Iowa’s home court — Carver-Hawkeye Arena — which is curtained off for volleyball but still seats 8,715 for the sport. Hambly pointed out that depth perception at Penn State’s court can be tricky, too, although his team handled that well this season.
“We passed really well there,” he said.
Said Mayers: “I’ve heard things about sight lines and stuff and just little things being different (at State Farm Center), but I personally didn’t see any difference.”
Sophomore setter Alexis Viliunas did experience one type of visual challenge during the team’s last visit to SFC. Because the ceiling is considerably higher than at Huff, tracking balls that reach extraordinary heights can be tricky, she said.
“When the balls are super high, you can lose them in the light,” Viliunas said. “You’ve got to tell with perception how fast it’s going to come. I’m used to it in (Huff), just because we’re always in here.”
One difference this weekend that Mayers and her teammates likely will appreciate is the court itself. The NCAA provides a Sport Court, known for its shock-absorption qualities, for each regional site as well as the Final Four. The floor used for the Illini match against Iowa at State Farm Center was the same one used for Illini men’s and women’s basketball.
Courts in that sport sometimes are referred to as the hardwood, and after playing on the one at SFC, Mayers now knows why.
“It’s not as springy, I guess,” she said. “Jumping (was) a little harder on the knees. It just gives less.”
So clearly, there are some differences between Huff and State Farm Center. Differences the Illini will be aware of this weekend from previous experience.
However, it’s an issue Hambly says he purposely doesn’t bring up with his team. It would only distract from the tunnel vision he wants his players to take onto the court. Any court.
“I think if we make a big deal about that stuff, it becomes a big deal,” Hambly said. “This is what it is, and don’t freak out about any of this.
“We’ll be fine.”
Providing all the comforts of home
How the Illini volleyball team has fared in its three previous matches at State Farm Center:
DATE OPPONENT OUTCOME
Nov. 10, 1981 Hawaii L 3-0
Illini fell to No. 1 and 29-0 visitors in match that attracted then-record home crowd reported to be more than 800.
Oct. 16, 2009 Minnesota W 3-0
“Spike the Record” promotion preceded Illini Basketball Madness, drew program-record 7,632 fans
Sept. 27, 2013 Iowa W 3-0
Illini sent crowd of 7,061, second largest ever, home happy with Big Ten-opening sweep of Hawkeyes.
A look at the Champaign Regional, which will be held at State Farm Center:
Florida State (26-7) vs. Wisconsin (25-9), 4 p.m.
Illinois (18-14) vs. Purdue (22-11), 6 p.m.
Winners, 5:30 p.m.