After spending its entire non-conference schedule on the road, Illinois returns to Huff Hall to open Big Ten play this weekend. Sitting 5-5, Fighting Illini will host their first home games of the season against Big Ten opposition, something setter Diana Brown especially looking forward to his fifth season in Champaign.
“It’s going to be weird that the first time we play Huff against anyone other than ourselves is the Big Ten, but that’s what we signed up for,” Brown said. “Every night in the Big Ten is a battle, so we have to expect anything and everything from every team. It might be a bit of a challenge considering it’s our first night at Huff, but I think that no matter where, on the road or at home, it’s always us against them.
“As long as we can stay strong and together, I think that shouldn’t be a problem.”
Illini’s volleyball team traveled around the country during their non-conference roster, playing in Mississippi, Colorado, Ohio, Wisconsin, and eastern Illinois. This four-week streak also featured games against multiple ranked opponents, including Georgia Tech, Washington and Marquette.
With eight Big Ten schools earning a spot in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, which also featured two B1G teams in the championship game, head coach Chris Tamas says he’s always focused on creating an engaging campaign outside of the conference.
Six of the team’s 10 games so far have come against teams in the tournament, and with conference play right around the corner, the Illini will face several more throughout the season.
“You have to challenge yourself to understand what your team is about and where you need to improve,” Tamas said. “If you never play against teams and those issues aren’t resolved, I’m not sure what you learn about yourself in pre-conference games. We have to continually put ourselves in those pressure situations and keep trying to rise above it.”
Brown and middle blocker kennedy collins say time on the road has taken a toll on their minds and bodies, but returning to Champaign this weekend will help flip the switch and get the team back on track.
More than 300 days have passed since Illinois last played a game at Huff Hall, and the Illini will face the same opponent on Friday when they host Maryland in town.
“I’m so excited. I miss playing Huff,” Collins said. “I just miss having all the fans on our side. Obviously being on the road for months everyone was against us. Just having this environment where everyone is supporting us, I think it’s going to be fun . I am very excited.”
Huff Hall will have a different look this season with an all-new video board on the gym’s south wall. Tamas, Brown, and Collins are all excited about the tech upgrade, and they all agree it will be a game-changer for player and fan experiences.
“It’s awesome, and it’s huge,” Tamas said. “I didn’t expect it to be that big. I was told it would be about the size of the old dashboard, but it’s probably about twice as big. That is going to really improve the atmosphere of the game, the environment of the game. I think for the players and the fans, it’s going to be a much improved experience, and we can’t wait to be back there with everyone that’s us encourage.”
While the video board brings a new look to historic Huff Hall, the same things that make playing in Champaign special – the opportunity for fans to sit close to the pitch, the acoustics that allow sounds to bounce on the walls and through your bodysuit – will be back for another season.
Playing in such a stacked and talented volleyball conference, the Illini will look to establish home court advantage, and the energy of Illinois’ cheering group, Spike Squad, fans, players and coaches will make opponents uncomfortable and scared to get to Champaign.
“I’ve been to a lot of gyms in my career, and when Huff gets into it, it’s probably one of the loudest places I’ve ever been,” Tamas said. “If we need a pickup, I know the crowd will be behind us. I think the general impression from Huff is that space is a bit tighter overall, so if you don’t you’re not used to playing in this tight space, for opponents I think it’s hard to adapt.
“I think it’s a great environment and I know the fans appreciate it. I know it’s difficult if you’re an away team when the fans are right next to you and you can hear the screams from 10 feet away, so it’s really nice to have that home court advantage.”
Illinois is back at Huff for a three-game homestand to open conference play, starting with Maryland Friday at 8 p.m. and Northwestern Saturday at 7 p.m.
The Illini will close out this three-game set next Friday, September 30 at 7 p.m. when they take on No. 11 Purdue.
“Everyone in the Big Ten is 0-0 in conference right now,” Brown said. “A new season starts this weekend, and we have to look forward.”