Illini adjusting to life as No. 1

Michelle Bartsch's hometown of Collinsville, Ill., has a distinction, if you will, that sets it apart from the web of cities that makes up the greater St. Louis area. It's the site of the world's largest ketchup bottle. How large?

"I don't really know the dimensions exactly," Bartsch said, laughing. "It's huge."

This isn't quite as it sounds: The Brooks Catsup Bottle water tower does not dispense any of the red condiment. Built in the late 1940s to provide water to the Brooks factory, it was painted to represent the bottled product. In the 1990s, locals raised funds to buy and restore the beloved 170-foot-tall landmark.

We bring it up because … well, how could you not mention such a wonderfully kitschy slice of Americana if you have the chance? And we do have that chance because Bartsch and her Illinois volleyball team are one of the best stories in collegiate fall sports right now.

The Illini are ranked No. 1 -- their first time in the top spot of the AVCA poll -- having ascended there two weeks ago. And they remained undefeated this past weekend, prevailing on one of their toughest road-trip tests: back-to-back matches against Ohio State and four-time defending NCAA champion Penn State.

The Illini swept the Buckeyes in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday night. Saturday, in front of a packed house at Rec Hall in State College, Pa., Illinois survived a five-setter: 21-25, 25-21, 23-25, 25-21, 15-12.

It was Illinois' first victory in Happy Valley since 1995, and it ended Penn State's 68-match winning streak at home against Big Ten opponents. The Illini are 17-0 and tied for first in the league at 6-0 with Big Ten newcomer Nebraska.

The showdown with the Huskers -- they meet just once this season -- is Oct. 22 in Lincoln, Neb. That's not on the Illini's minds now, though, with Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern next.

The meeting with the Wolverines is Wednesday night at the Illini's Huff Hall, which might be filled for the remainder of their home matches. Fans in Champaign-Urbana and environs should take advantage of seeing this team in what could be an epic season.

"We have a interesting group of kids; I really enjoy working with them," said Kevin Hambly, in his third season as Illinois' coach. "They are major achievers academically; they have good heads on their shoulders. They keep things in perspective.

"They made an appearance during the third quarter of a [recent] football game, and the place just blew up. They got a standing ovation. They realized, 'Wow, people are paying attention.' But they know it can go away pretty fast, so I like how they are approaching it. They know, 'If we lose a match, we aren't going to be No. 1 anymore.' So they aren't caught up in it."

But for Illini volleyball fans -- and there are some who go way, way back -- it's OK to be pretty wound up about this.

The Illini have been among the nation's best before; they twice it made it as far as the Final Four. But that was in 1987 and '88. As much as volleyball is still trying to establish itself as a spectator/television-friendly sport now, it was just a blip then on the collegiate scene. At that time, though, it was a big deal in Champaign-Urbana, with Illinois being one of the nation's attendance leaders in volleyball.

Illinois had started its volleyball program in 1974, then had its breakout season in 1985. That year, freshman superstar Mary Eggers led Illinois to the school's first NCAA tournament appearance. Eggers would finish in 1988 with an NCAA record career hitting percentage of .420; the Illini fell to Hawaii in the national semifinals her junior and senior seasons.

Mike Hebert was the coach of the Illini from 1983 to '95, making 11 NCAA tournament appearances. Then he went to Minnesota, where he led the Gophers to three Final Fours. He retired after last season.

Don Hardin ran the Illini program from 1996 to 2008 and had three trips to the NCAA Sweet 16. Among his standout players was Mary Coleman, who finished her collegiate career in 1998 and later met and married Hambly. An Illini assistant since 2004, Hambly took over as head coach in 2009; Mary is active in the program supervising summer camps.

The Illini reached the Sweet 16 both of the past two seasons -- they fell to Texas on the Longhorns' home court to end 2010 -- and hope for even better this year. Illinois is led by an experienced group Hambly thinks is prepared for whatever it faces.

Admittedly, one thing the Illini haven't faced this season is a team from the ultrapowerful Pac-12. But that's a worry for once the NCAA tournament comes around in December. In the meantime, the Illini continue to explore how good they can be. Hambly said he was curious how the players would respond to the two road matches at Ohio State and Penn State, and he got a satisfying answer.

Colleen Ward, a senior from suburban Chicago who spent her first two years at Florida, led the Illini with 14 kills against the Buckeyes. Bartsch, also a senior outside hitter, had 12 kills in that match.

Then, against the Nittany Lions, it was Bartsch's defense that really stood out, as she had a team-high 25 digs. Ward had 17 digs and again led the Illini in kills, with 15. Orchestrating the Illini attack is another transfer from the Chicago area; redshirt junior Annie Luhrsen spent a year at UConn before coming back home.

Luhrsen's self-description as "the most indecisive person I know [who] can never pick favorites" is fascinating considering that she's a setter, the position that makes the most decisions on court. She's clearly much better at it than she thinks she is. As for not picking favorites, that's a virtue for a setter. Luhrsen distributes the ball well among her hitters, who also include 6-foot-6 freshman Liz McMahon.

And probably the most vocal presence on the Illini is junior middle blocker Erin Johnson. She's another standout from the Chicago burbs and aspires to be an emergency room physician.

Bartsch leads the team in kills with 257, but Hambly is even more impressed with the rest of her game.

"The thing that's interesting about Michelle is she has put up these great hitting numbers, but attacking is probably her worst skill," he said. "Her best are blocking, defense and passing. She's by far our best passer statistically. And she can just make some amazing plays I don't see anybody else make. Like these one-handed saves; she's just got this knack for the game."

You could say she was born with that; her mother, Julie, was a volleyball player at Kansas in the 1980s and has coached at the club and high school levels in Illinois.

"I was what you'd call a gym rat; I'd always go hang out with her when she was coaching," Bartsch said. "I started playing club ball when I was 10. And she taught me everything I needed to know.

"Then I was the typical teenager who didn't want to hear as much from her because I thought I knew more. Now that I'm older, I realize she has great advice and knows everything that I'm going through."

What could be the best part of Bartsch's career is yet to come, as the Illini hope they will finish this season in the Lone Star State again, as they did last year. This time, though, they want it to be in the Final Four in San Antonio.

"California and Texas have the most recruits for volleyball, but Illinois is right behind that," Hambly said of being able to boost the Illini with a lot of in-state talent such as Bartsch. "When I came here, I saw this potential giant that had done it before and needed to get back to the national spotlight. This seemed interesting to me, to help re-establish Illinois as one of the top programs in the country."

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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