Want to root for a winning Illini squad? Look to volleyball

  • Illinois' Jordyn Poulter (1) sets to teammate Ashlyn Fleming while Nebraska's Callie Schwarzenbach (25) and Lexi Sun defend in the first set of a semifinal match of the NCAA Div I Women's Volleyball Championships Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, in Minneapolis.

    Illinois' Jordyn Poulter (1) sets to teammate Ashlyn Fleming while Nebraska's Callie Schwarzenbach (25) and Lexi Sun defend in the first set of a semifinal match of the NCAA Div I Women's Volleyball Championships Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, in Minneapolis.

  • Illinois' Ali Bastiannelli (5) hits against Nebraska's Mikaela Foecke (2) and Callie Schwarzenbach (25) in the first set of a semifinal match of the NCAA Div I Women's Volleyball Championships Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, in Minneapolis.

    Illinois' Ali Bastiannelli (5) hits against Nebraska's Mikaela Foecke (2) and Callie Schwarzenbach (25) in the first set of a semifinal match of the NCAA Div I Women's Volleyball Championships Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, in Minneapolis.

 
 
Updated 12/21/2018 6:29 PM

It's not easy being an Illinois football fan these days.

The Illini just wrapped a 4-8 campaign, 2-7 in the Big Ten.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It's been seven years since Illinois has had a winning record (7-6 in 2011) and 11 years since the Illini have been in a major bowl (Rose Bowl in 2007 with a 9-4 record).

Now, here's what is easy if you bleed Orange and Blue.

Being an Illinois volleyball fan.

Want to cheer for a winner, Illini fans? Bypass Memorial Stadium on those pretty fall weekends and make Huff Hall, home of the volleyball team, your new destination in Champaign.

Just last weekend, the Illinois volleyball team returned home from the Final Four at a sold out Target Center in Minneapolis. Yes, the Final Four. The Illini fell in the national semifinals, but heck, they were there.

And this wasn't a fluke.

The Illini are good, really good, year in and year out in volleyball.

They were ranked No. 3 in the country heading into the Final Four, and they were making their fourth Final Four appearance, and their second in eight years.

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Illinois is routinely one of the best teams in the Big Ten, arguably the strongest volleyball conference in the country, and is routinely a Top 25 team. The Illini have been to the national tournament 26 times, including seven Elite Eight appearances, and were the national runners-up in 2011.

Before this season, the Illini were picked to finish fifth in the rugged Big Ten (which says more about the strength of the Big Ten) and yet still managed this amazing postseason run.

"Words can't express how proud I am of this group," Illinois coach Chris Tamas said of his players after they fell to fellow Big Ten heavyweight Nebraska in the national semifinal. "I told them in the locker room ... this goes down as one of the all-time best teams that I've been around. We put the challenge to them every day to just work their tails off and they did that."

Illinois got to host the regional this year and a rowdy sellout crowd at Huff Hall helped push the Illini to a regional championship and another Final Four berth.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The regional matches attracted some of the volleyball program's most notable alumni, who helped to first establish Illinois as a volleyball power years ago.

Mary Egger Tendler was the NCAA national player of the year in 1988 and carried the Illini to back-to-back Final Fours in 1987 and 1988.

"It's a tribute to the program that so many people wanted to support them (at the regional at Huff Hall)," Egger Tendler said of the current team. "They are a very talented team and a group you want to root for."

Current Illinois setter Jordyn Poulter was named the Big Ten Co-Setter of the year this season while Ali Bastianelli and Jacqueline Quade joined Poulter as unanimous selections to the all-Big Ten first team.

Poulter and Bastianelli haven't always had it easy. There has been some adversity within the program along the way.

The two seniors went through a coaching change before Tamas settled in, and had multiple different assistants come in and out and yet helped keep the program on the fast track through that turmoil.

"This whole season, we've been told that we're different than a lot of Illinois teams," Poulter said. "We've been told that by alumni, former coaches, our own coaching staff.

"I think that it's great that we get to represent the university and ourselves and kind of leave that legacy."

It's a legacy of winning and success that is not only 30 years in the making, and still going strong, but it is also a legacy that is very easy to root for. (Hint, hint, Illinois football fans. Huff Hall ... get there next fall.)

• Twitter: @babcockmcgraw

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