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    Youth Tops Experience at Alumni Match
    Freshman Michelle Strizak hit .714 with 10 kills in her Huff Hall debut.

    Freshman Michelle Strizak hit .714 with 10 kills in her Huff Hall debut.

    Aug 24, 2013

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    Champaign, Ill. - In a tradition dating back to 1985, the Fighting Illini kicked off the 2013 volleyball season with the annual Alumni Match. A crowd of over 1,500 gathered at Huff Hall for its first chance to see Illinois' five freshmen in action, while welcoming back 17 alumni to challenge the current squad.  The Fighting Illini took a little while to get in the groove, but once got going they began to dominate, defeating the alumni, 3-0 (25-22, 25-15, 25-13).

    "I thought we started out very tentative, very nervous," said Head Coach Kevin Hambly. "We hadn't seen that the whole preseason, but I expect that given the fans at Huff. Tonight was good for understanding how things are supposed to go and getting the nerves and rust off. I thought we got better with every set."

    The first set was sloppy for both teams, with the alumni narrowly outhitting the Illini .089 to .078. However, the Illini cleaned up their act quickly over the final two sets, committing just three errors over the next two frames and hitting .609 in set three.

    "There's a lot we can still work on," said senior libero Jennifer Beltran. "Our main focus tonight was just making the most out of the moment; of course tonight didn't count for anything, but it was about what our team could get out of it. We worked on a lot of things this spring and so right now we're just trying to put it all together."

    Jocelynn Birks and Liz McMahon started at outside hitter in the first set, and each put up five kills, while setter Alexis Vilunas was all over the defense with eight digs as the Illini took the frame, 25-22. Colleen Ward led the alumni with five kills on 17 swings in the set to go along with four digs.  The beginning of the set was neck-and-neck, but after a 9-9 tie, the Illini went on a 9-1 run to jump out to an 18-10 lead. The alumni bounced back to close the gap to 19-16, but the current squad pushed back ahead, 23-17. Ward, nicknamed "Ace" Ward for a reason, served up the next five points to bring the alumni within one, 23-22, but the Illini pulled out the win.

    The rookies began to take over in the second set, as redshirt freshman middle blocker Maddie Mayers went 4-for-5 on the attack, and Katie Stadick and Michelle Strizak each had two kills and no errors, as the Illini defeated the alumni 25-15.

    Strizak exploded in the third set, stabbing seven kills on nine swings to finish the night 10-for-14 with no errors to hit an impressive .714 in her Huff Hall debut.

    "The freshmen got to play with pressure on them," said Hambly. "Strizak was ridiculous, hitting .714 and doing a good job. I thought it was good, getting them all out there and taking some cuts.

    "Our gym is good, that other team out there is a team that our starters play every day in practice, so that bodes well for us."

    Mayers, who redshirted in 2012 behind strong middles Anna Dorn and Erin Johnson, hit .455 with six kills and a block. Katie Stadick, another rookie middle, tabbed four kills, while outsider hitter Katie Roustio had a kill in three swings in her Illini debut. McKenna Kelsay started at setter in the third set and recorded 14 assists, while sophomore Viliunas put together 21 assists and 10 digs for a double-double. Rookie Danielle Davis saw some back row action, recording two digs and an assist, and sophomore Kathryn Polkoff, who did not make it into a match in 2012, had a kill and a block.

    The alumni squad featured 17 former Illini, 14 of whom saw court time at the match. Two-time All-American Colleen Ward amassed seven kills and five digs, and Vicki Brown and Erin Johnson each had five kills and two blocks. Kylie McCulley registered seven digs and two blocks, while All-American setter Hillary Haen tallied 18 assists and 12 digs for a double-double. Rachel Feldman manned the back row with 10 digs, and setter Annie Luhrsen had seven assists and three kills. Other alumni who saw action in the match included Tayler Onion, Mary Coleman Hambly, Hannah Deterding, Laura Haselhorst Mueller, Shadia Haddad, Jackie Wolfe and Kristine Anderson Rousseau. Johannah Bangert, Kelly (See) Finet and Amber Lindner Frykman were also in attendance.

    "It's awesome having the alumni come back, especially EJ (Erin Johnson) since she's been working with us this preseason and she'll be with us this season," said Beltran. "It's great for the freshmen who are just getting here because she can give them other pointers that we haven't experienced yet."

    "The team has spent a lot of time with the alumni and work with them year round," said Hambly. That goes for all of them; there are so many of them on that wall over there that are All-Americans and helping the team understand the legacy and rich history and proud tradition of Illinois volleyball. It is something that our girls are very aware of as we have a great alumni event. It's a part of the Illini family."

    The Illini kick off the regular season next weekend in Long Beach, Calif. They open against No. 18 Florida State at 1 p.m. CT on Friday, Aug. 30, then play host Long Beach State at 9:30 p.m. CT. They finish out the opening weekend against No. 17 Kentucky at 6:30 p.m. CT on Saturday.

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