I’ve spent my entire life growing up as an Illini fan, and there’s been a lot of great memories over those 19 years, but my favorite Illini moment of all time came this season. Yes, this season.
It all started at 1:30 in the morning on a cold December morning, in Saint Joseph, IL. Finals began in a week, but it was the least of my concerns. I rolled out of bed, grabbed my bag, and jumped into my trusty 2007 Toyota Prius. After picking up a few friends, we were off. Our destination? State College, PA.
Illinois volleyball has become my favorite sport to attend as a student, period. With a great team and an amazing atmosphere in Huff Hall, it can’t be beat. And 2017 was no exception. Despite being a relatively young team with a new head coach, the Illini posted a 22-10 regular season record, earning them a berth in the NCAA tournament, where they took down Hawaii and eighth-ranked Washington to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, taking on Big Ten rival Michigan State.
While Seattle was a bit too far away for us die-hards to travel, we decided that the ten hour drive to Happy Valley was fair game. So we loaded up at 2 AM into two cars, and hit the road.
We arrived at Penn State just in time for the game, and then it was on. After splitting the first two sets, Michigan State took a 2-1 lead after the third, and won the match in a back-and-forth final set, 29-27.
The six of us (along with members of Penn State’s volleyball student section, with whom we had coordinated the trip) were the only students in Rec Hall for that game, and we gave it our all. The atmosphere of an NCAA tournament game was unlike that of any other college game I’ve been to. The winner-takes-all stakes of the match had everybody involved, and the fourth set was probably the single most exciting one I’ve ever watched.
After the match, we spent the night with Penn State’s student section leaders, and then hit the road next morning for home, braving our way through blizzards and car troubles (so much for the Prius being trusty).
In 36 hours, we had traveled from Champaign to State College and back. I still can’t believe we did it. But that’s what being an Illini fan will do to you. There’s more to being an Illini fan than just cheering on the team. When you cheer on any team, you share a common bond with those cheering with you. And its those experiences with those people that you’ll really remember, when it’s all said and done.
Five months later, I still find myself talking about this trip with others who went on it. It’s not just one of my favorite Illini moments, but one of my favorite memories of all time. And I hope that in these next two years that I’m a student here at Illinois, I’ll end up making plenty more memories and plenty more road trips with other Illini fans.