Fans of the U of I women's volleyball team came to Willard Airport Sunday to welcome the team back home, the day after their NCAA national title loss to UCLA on Saturday.
That loss capped a year in which the Illini team had the most wins since 1992, their first NCAA semifinal appearance since 1988, and their first championship game ever. A tired Michelle Bartsch couldn't pick a particular moment of the season that stood out for her. But Bartsch, who was named to the All-Tournament Team along with fellow Illini players Colleen Ward and Annie Luhrsen, says she remembers when she first realized she was on a team ready to compete for the championship. Bartsch says she knew it last January, when they first started training for the season.
"I switched positions", explains Bartsch. "We had people filling different roles. And I know that we had a team that could go really far. And with our freshmen coming in, it kind of solidified. Our freshmen are awesome, and they make us better every day in practice."
Coach Kevin Hambly agrees, saying that they had a great recruiting class with a lot of talent this season, and players who came expecting to compete for the national championship.
But if the players were charges up, so were the fans. Hambly says their response this season has been overwhelming.
"We sold out more matches this year than we have in the past", says Hambly. "And our attendance went way up. But what I think more important was just the amount of support from the community just walking around town, and the amount of emails and calls and everything. It's been overwhelming."
As for Michelle Bartsch, she plans to take the spring semester off to play volleyball professionally. But Hambly says the senior will be back at Illinois in the fall as part of the coaching staff.
From WILL - News Headlines - December 18, 2011 10:17 AM
Illinois's first trip to the NCAA finals in women's volleyball ended in defeat Saturday night. The UCLA Bruins won the match in four sets (25-23, 23-25, 26-24, 25-16) at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
Coach Kevin Hambly says the Bruins played hard, and made the plays they needed to make at key moments, especially in the fourth and deciding set.
As for his own team, Hambly said, "I've never been around a group of people that were more committed to each other, more committed to the process, and more committed to just being, not just great volleyball players, but great people. It's truly been a pleasure to work with this group."
It was the final game for senior Colleen Ward, who earned First Team All-American honors earlier in the week. Afterwards, an emotional Ward fought back tears as she looked back on her time with the Illini.
"I couldn't have picked a better team, better coaches, betters support from my fans", said Ward. "I'm really thankful for what we had here and what we accomplished this year. I'm really proud of my team."
Illinois won the 2nd set by two points, and lost the 3rd by two points. Ward said it was difficult coming out of that close third-set loss into the final set. Michelle Bartsch had seven kills in the first set and seven more in the third, en route to a match high 22 kills on the night. Rachel Kidder had a team high 20 kills for the Bruins. Illinois finished the season with a record of 32-5.
The Illini's Ward, Bartsch and junior setter Annie Luhrsen were named to the All-Tournament Team. Luhrsen had 47 assists and six kills.
A fan welcome reception was planned for Sunday for the Illini volleyball team at Flightstar at Willard Airport --- the team was expected to return around 12:15 PM.
From WILL - News Headlines - December 17, 2011 10:56 AM
Unlike other schools, The Fighting Illini volleyball team can boast that most of its players come from Illinois.
For example, Penn State won four straight national championships before this year. But that's largely due its recruiting beyond the border of Pennsylvania.
Heading into Saturday night's title match, Fighting Illini coach Kevin Hambly doesn't feel he needs to go too far to lure high-quality volleyball players.
"We're fortunate that the University of Illinois is close proximity to some very good recruiting bases," he said. "Ohio, the Chicago area, the St. Louis area, and Indianapolis. Most kids, especially with the nature of how early recruiting is going, want to stay closer to home."
Illinois will take on UCLA at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Alamodome in San Antonio. The Fighting Illini are attempting to win their first national title in women's volleyball.
From WILL - News Headlines - December 16, 2011 12:06 AM
(Updated with additional coverage from Greg Echlin)
The University of Illinois women's volleyball team will remember the Alamodome. It was at the Alamodome in San Antonio that the third-seed Fighting Illini (32-4) defeated top-seed USC(29-5) Thursday night, winning three out of five sets, (25-27, 25-18, 25-22, 18-25, 15-10) to qualify for the NCAA championship game for the first time.
The victory came on Illinois' third trip to the women's volleyball Final Four, and their first since 1988.
Senior outside hitter Colleen Ward had 27 kills and Michelle Bartsch added 22 kills for the Illini victory.
The drama intensified as the fifth set reached match point, with Illinois fans showing their anticipation with a chant of "One more point! One more point!"
That last rally turned out to be the most dramatic, and the crowd oohed and ahhed as each powerful spike was answered by an inspiring dig on the net's other side. It continued for a minute, seeming longer, until U-S-C's Katie Fuller committed an attack error. The match belonged to the Fighting Illini.
Liz McMahon, a 6-foot-6 freshman from Ohio, had five kills in that deciding set. After the game, she was soaking in the experience.
"It's a blast, I can tell you that", McMahom said of the win that ushered her team into the finals. "Yeah, it's just fun, but with this team and how far we've come."
The Illini's post-game celebration was subdued, with Coach Kevin Hambly reminding his players that they still had one more game. Nevertheless, Hambly spoke glowingly of what his team had accomplished.
"I'm proud of the girls", Hambly said. "You know our goal was to get to this match, the next match, and they stuck to that. Well, more than just get to the match. But I thought they were determined to make that happen."
Alex Jupiter had 32 kills for USC. The Trojans lost in the semis for the second consecutive year after being pushed to five sets for a third consecutive match this tournament.
Illinois will play UCLA in the championship match Saturday night at 7:30 PM Central Time. The Bruins defeated Florida State in three sets (25-16, 25-17, 25-21) in the Thursday night semifinals. Illinois is 0-and-9 in all-time play against UCLA in volleyball.
(Reported for Illinois Public Media News by Greg Echlin; additional reporting by the Associated Press)
From WILL - News Headlines - December 13, 2011 2:08 PM
The University of Illinois' volleyball team is on its way to San Antonio, hoping to put the exclamation point on a 31 and 4 season.
The team is seeking its first national title, and reached its first national semifinal in 23 years after a defeat of Florida on Saturday. Early Tuesday morning, the team boarded a charter bus to Chicago's Midway Airport. Sophomore Jennifer Beltran says it's nice to steal the spotlight from U of I football and basketball for once.
"It's great to see the support and just see the people come out and cheering for us," she said. "I mean, it is a big deal for the program and for the school, so it's nice that we can just be a part of it."
Beltran says reaching the championship game was a goal the team set at the very start of its season. Assistant Coach Jen Flynn Oldenberg says a Final Four berth became more evident as the season went on.
"You never know right away, but it's something we were preparing for and talking about the whole time," she said. "It's something that we were focused on, not in every game, point by point, but it's something that we thought about throughout the year."
The volleyball team takes on USC at 8 p.m. Thursday in San Antonio, following the matchup of UCLA and Florida State. The title game is at 7:30 Saturday night.