CHAMPAIGN — Soon after Kyla Swanson slammed down the final point of the Illinois volleyball team’s 3-1 win over Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Quentin Wetzel texted an athletic department representative to make a plan.
Wetzel, one of the leaders of the Spike Squad student section, figured he’d be able to organize a nice watch party for this week’s Sweet 16 match in Austin, Texas.
The response he got, though, shocked him.
“Knowing that it was going to be in Texas, I assumed going was off the table,” he said. “But then I get a message Sunday morning saying, ‘Not only are we going to be able to go, but we’re getting a plane.’”
The UI’s Department of Intercollegiate Athletics will charter a flight for the Spike Squad and the pep band, Wetzel said, for Illinois’ Thursday matchup with No. 10 Nebraska. The 8:30 p.m. match will be carried live on WDWS 1400-AM.
“It’s something (athletic director) Josh (Whitman) wanted to do,” said Associate Director of Athletics Cassie Arner. “He and (UI volleyball coach) Chris (Tamas) talked after the Kentucky win (about how) the people that made it really tough for us to lose at Huff Hall and who have been a big part of our success over the time Chris has been here have been the Spike Squad.
“Not being able to have them (at matches) last year, it seemed really important that we should try to get them and the band down there. So we started researching charter planes.”
Wetzel and the Spike Squad leadership simply have to figure out which 70 members will get to make the trip.
Around 9 p.m. Sunday, the Spike Squad put out a call on Instagram for members who wanted to travel. By the time he went to sleep, Wetzel said the group had already received over 200 responses.
“It’s really blown us out of the water,” he said. “I feel bad that we’re going to have to tell so many people ‘no,’ but it’s also great that so many people are interested and want to come with.”
For Wetzel and this group of Spike Squad seniors, the experience of following Illinois volleyball began with a dream season in 2018, when Illinois made a run to the Final Four in Minneapolis. Wetzel and a few dozen Spike Squad members made a bus trip to the Target Center, where they watched Illinois lose to Nebraska in a heartbreaking fifth set.
Illinois didn’t win an NCAA tournament match the following two seasons, falling in the first round in 2019 before failing to make the tournament last spring during a shortened season due to COVID-19.
This season began with a rocky start that included consecutive home losses to Washington and Colorado in September, but the Illini hit their stride, finishing 12-8 during a difficult Big Ten season.
“The team that lost to Colorado in September, that’s just a different team than what we saw on Saturday,” Wetzel said. “It’s been cool as the team has heated up to see more people on campus and in the community start to support them.”
Wetzel said the Spike Squad is still figuring out details of the trip, but the schedule is simplified by the fact that students have the day off of classes on Thursday with finals beginning Friday. Those who have gone to the most games will get preference, he added.
If the Illini win on Thursday, they’ll play in the Elite Eight on Saturday. While planning another trip for the Spike Squad and pep band on such short notice would be complicated, especially with a men’s basketball game the same day, Arner wouldn’t rule it out.
“Who knows?” she said. “Crazier things have happened. I’ll say this, Josh will do anything he can to help student athletes, so if he feels like we can pull it off, I wouldn’t be surprised.”