Jocelynn Birks will be a big factor in the illini's success this season.
Aug. 6, 2012
Champaign, Ill. - Coming off the most celebrated season in school history, Illinois, under national coach of the year Kevin Hambly, returns to the practice court this week in search of more NCAA success. The Illini return five starters from last year's team that won 32 matches and reached the program's first NCAA title match. Hambly says his team has long put the 2011 season behind them, doing so even before spring workouts, but the team's success has generated an impressive increase in ticket sales and promises to be responsible for great atmospheres at Huff Hall this fall.
Illinois must replace a pair of All-America outside hitters, however, in Colleen Ward, a first-team AVCA All-American and NCAA Gainesville Regional MVP, and Michelle Bartsch, who earned first-team Volleyball Magazine All-America accolades. Bartsch and Ward combined for nearly 1,100 kills and 900 digs from the pins and were reliable threats from the back row.
The leading candidates to fill those big shoes are redshirt-freshmen Jocelynn Birks and Ali Stark and sophomore Morganne Criswell. Birks has been hitting around and over the block, and has been one of the most notably athletic players in practice. The 6-2 Lyons Township graduate was a 2010 second-team All-American and the News-Gazette state Player of the Year in high school. The 2010 Iowa Gatorade Player of the Year, Stark saw action in three matches last year before suffering an injury and being granted a medical hardship. Criswell, meanwhile, had some success in some early matches, including a season-best eight kills vs. Houston. The Decatur, Ill., native could be used to give Illinois some size and provide a strong hitter as a defensive replacement in the back row.
Senior Annie Luhrsen returns for her second season as the starting setter after ranking third in the Big Ten in assists and helping Illinois hit .261 as a team in 2011. She was named to the NCAA All-Tournament team after tallying 268 assists and 52 digs during the tourney. Luhrsen was effective at not just tipping, but also putting the ball away as her 117 kills on the season would indicate.
The Illini could experiment with a 6-2 two-setter system this year, but either way, incoming freshman Alexis Viliunas promises to see the floor. Viliunas was the 2011 Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year and 34th-rated player nationally while setting for two state championship teams at Lyons Township. The rest of the incoming class includes heralded defensive specialist Julia Conard from West Chicago; 6-4 middle Maddie Mayers, the No. 76 ranked "Senior Ace" by prepvolleyball.com; and middle blocker Kathryn Polkoff, who led New Trier to the IHSA Class 4A Elite in 2011.
Although Illinois has its share of NCAA experience, its starting line-up could include just two seniors (Luhrsen and 6-3 middle blocker Erin Johnson) and one junior (5-9 libero Jennifer Beltran). While the Illini have featured dominant outside hitters in recent years, the strength of this year's team could come from the middle where Johnson promises to step more into the spotlight and the "Honey Badger" Anna Dorn, a redshirt-sophomore who shined in some of the biggest matches a year ago, is developing into a take-charge player. Dorn ranked fourth in the Big Ten and third in the nation among freshmen in blocks per set (1.28) and tied a school-record with 13 block assists in an historic five-set victory at Penn State. Johnson was equally impressive in some big wins, hitting .643 with nine kills in the home victory over Penn State and collecting seven blocks in the NCAA national semifinal win over USC.
Illinois' success in 2011 had a lot to do with the addition of 6-6 Liz McMahon. The All-Big Ten Freshman Team performer gave the Illini a huge blocking presence on the right side and could be used on either the left or right side in 2012. McMahon hit .268 while ranking third on the team with 127 blocks.
Beltran, who is on pace to shatter the school career digs record, is getting more All-America consideration after strong performances during the post-season, which included 26 digs vs. Ohio State in the regional semifinal match and 32 digs, a new school-best NCAA Tournament mark, vs. USC.
Jackie Wolfe, who had 20 aces in 2011, and Courtney Abrahamovich could be used as strong serving specialists, while Jessica Jendryk and Tayler Onion give Illinois some depth at middle blocker and outside hitter, respectively.
For Hambly, the regular season is all preparation for December and the strength of the schedule backs up that premise. The slate includes 21 matches against NCAA qualifying teams, 13 against teams that finished last season in the AVCA Top 25, and four (Pepperdine, Iowa State twice, and Texas) against teams that reached the NCAA regional final in 2011.
Illinois hosts the Alumni Event on Aug. 18 before opening the season on Aug. 24 at the Dayton Flyer Classic.