It’s Dec. 17, 2011, and Illinois volleyball is playing in the national championship game. The third-seeded Illini, who had once been ranked as the top team in the country, were up against the fourth-ranked Bruins of UCLA. At home, my family and I tuned into ESPN2, ready to watch and cheer on the Illini from afar.
The Road to the National Championship
Making it to a title game is never an easy feat, but the Illini made it seem to be as easy as it could possibly be. They opened the season on a 20-game win streak, before faltering for the only time in the season, dropping three out of their next four matches. They would only lose once more in the regular season, to an unranked Michigan State squad. They finished the regular season with a second place Big Ten finish, a 27-4 (16-4 Big Ten) record, and a 9-3 mark against Top 25 opponents. They beat perennial powerhouse and four-time defending national champion Penn State in both appearances that season, including a 3-0 beatdown at Huff Hall.
The Illini headed into the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament as a three seed, earning them home-court advantage for the first two rounds, where they clobbered Central Michigan and Marquette, never dropping a set. In the Sweet Sixteen, Illinois took down Ohio State once again, three sets to one before defeating host Florida in four sets as well.
Making it to the Final Four at the Alamodome, the Illini faced a strong USC squad, who they bested in a close, five-set match. Now, it was time for the title game...
The Championship Match
Facing a strong UCLA squad, the title game was a back-and-forth affair. UCLA stole the first set away from the Illini, who took the lead at multiple points (5-1, 13-10, 20-18), but couldn’t keep the momentum in their favor, ultimately dropping the set, 25-23.
The second set was somewhat of the opposite, however, as UCLA jumped out to a commanding lead, stopping the Illini in their tracks whenever they started to gain momentums. But with UCLA up 21-15, the Illini scored seven unanswered points to take the lead and didn’t look back, winning the set, 25-23.
In the third set, yet once again, early leads proved to not mean much for either squad. The Illini jumped out to a 12-8 lead, but UCLA fought back and dragged the set out into a stalemate of side-outs before Illinois made it to set point, up 24-22. Undeterred, UCLA won the next four points to take the set, and a 2-1 lead in the match.
In the fourth and final set, UCLA controlled play from the beginning, maintaining a lead throughout the set and never allowing the Illini more than two consecutive points, to win the set, 25-16.
Michelle Bartsch led the Illini in kills for the match, with 22 off a .281 hitting percentage. She was followed by Colleen Ward, with 17 on .277 hitting. Annie Luhrsen had 47 assists for Illinois, and libero Jennifer Beltran picked up 26 digs.
While the Illini didn’t win a national title in 2011, they did make it further than any Illinois team had before, and had the fifth best record of any Illini team in history. With a team as successful as the Illini were that season, it’s not surprising that many members of that year’s team have gone on to play professionally or continue elsewhere with volleyball.
Four Illini played professionally following their stint at Illinois: Michelle Bartsch, Colleen Ward, Erin Johnson and Liz McMahon. Bartsch currently plays for Team USA, was an alternate for the 2016 Olympic team, and recently put up 21 points against Japan. In fact, Bartsch, Johnson and McMahon would be reunited in 2016, as they all played for Dresdner Sportclub 1898 in Germany.
Head coach Kevin Hambly would go on to coach the Illini through the 2016 season, before accepting the head coaching position at reigning national champion Stanford, and made it back to the Final Four in his first season there.
While the Illini haven’t made it farther than the Sweet Sixteen since 2011, the future is bright for the program. The 2011 Illini were led by a group of veterans, and last year’s young squad — who made a Sweet Sixteen run of their own — will return with the experience needed to succeed in a conference as strong as the Big Ten, and in the NCAA Tournament.
I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the Illini in this upcoming season, and the seasons after that.