Senior setter Erin Virtue will be a major key to Illini volleyball fortunes in 2004.
Aug. 12, 2004
Who's Back: Senior Erin Virtue (St. Charles, Ill./St. Francis H.S.) was a First Team All-Big Ten selection, an AVCA All-Mideast Region selection, and an Honorable Mention All-American last year after posting 1627 assists, the fifth most in school history. Virtue helped engineer some big victories, including a career-high 80-assist output vs. Purdue. She ranked behind only Wisconsin's Morgan Shield in assists per game in the Big Ten (13.56) and helped set the tone for Illinois' great hitters, including Third Team All-American Lisa Argabright. Who's not: No one. Keep an eye on: Stephanie Obermeier (Crystal Lake, Ill/Prairie Ridge H.S.) Much the same way those close to the program anticipated Virtue during her freshman and sophomore seasons while she played behind starter Betsy Eiserman, the same confidence is being given to Obermeier, who redshirted last season, as the heir apparent at the position. Said Coach Hardin: "Stephanie had a very good spring showing and is ready to `take the baton' from Erin at any moment." Newcomer: Cari Meyer (Harmon, Ill./ Bureau Valley H.S.) transfers to Illinois after a successful career at Parkland College. She gives Illinois some experience behind Virtue.
Who's Back: The Illini have some big players returning who had successful seasons last year, but who have the potential to be even better. Jessica Belter (St. Peter's, Mo./Fort Zumwalt South H.S.) was the AVCA National Player of the Week during the third week of October after hitting .588 combined in victories over Michigan and Michigan State. Belter also provided a strong presence in the back row with four double-doubles in kills and digs. Perhaps no one made a bigger burst on the scene than Rachel Van Meter (Lexington, Ky./ Dorman, S.C., H.S.). Van Meter, who was moved from middle blocker to outside hitter last season, still has two years of eligibility left. She exploded for a match-high 23 kills in a four-game upset of #11 Penn State. In fact, VanMeter had 21 double-digit kill matches, including a combined 46 kills in the weekend victories over Minnesota and Iowa. VanMeter made a handful of starts and ranked second on the team in kills (424), just 23 behind team leader Lisa Argabright. That mark was also 16th in the Big Ten. Who's not: The Illini lose a two-year starter in Melissa Vandrey. Vandrey ranked a close third on the team in kills (401) and combined for over 700 kills during her junior and senior seasons. Keep an eye on: Rasa Virsilaite (Kaunas, Lithuania). Virsilaite will be important at both defensive specialist and outside hitter. She has appeared in 27 matches with a career-high 12 kills vs. Iowa in 2002. Newcomer: The blue chip athletes continue to roll in for Coach Don Hardin and this year is no exception with freshman Kayani Turner (Bel Air, Md./John Carroll H.S). Turner has a powerful swing and led the Baltimore area in kills as a junior (4.6 per game) and senior (nearly 6.0 kills per game).Turner received an invitation to participate on the 2003 A2 Youth National Team, but was unable to participate due to her AAU basketball team advancing to nationals.
Who's Back: This is the one area where the Illini will be inexperienced at the start of 2004. Meghan Macdonald (Downers Grove, Ill./D.G. South H.S.), who saw action in just nine matches last year, is the most experienced player at that position. Macdonald does have impressive credentials -- the Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year in 2002 and one of Volleyball Monthly's Fab 50 recruits. In limited action last season, Macdonald was consistent, with just three hitting errors in 28 swings to go along with 15 kills. That gave her a .429 attack percentage. Who's not: Illinois will see Third Team All-American Lisa Argabright once this year - as an assistant coach at Miami, Fla. Argabright was dominant at times in 2003, leading Illinois in attack percentage for the second straight year. Her prowess made other teams key on her, which opened the door for other players to do some damage. The Illini must also replace Shelly O'Bryan, who was second on the club with a .332 attack percentage and had double-digits in kills in all three NCAA matches. Keep an eye on: Jen Hynds (Sylan, Ill./Mundelein H.S.). Like Obermeier, Illinois got the opportunity to redshirt the highly touted middle blocker. This would give her the opportunity to potentially start four years. Hynds was the second Volleyball Monthly Fab 50 recruit in 2002 (along with Macdonald). She was also named a High School All-American by Student Sports Magazine. Sophomore Megan Griffin (Chicago, Ill/Mother McAuley) will see time at both middle blocker and some at outside hitter. The 2001 Illinois All-State selection led perennial power Mother McAuley to the state title in 2000. Griffin redshirted as a freshman and saw limited time last season with the powerful players ahead of her in the line-up. Newcomer: Vicki Brown (Toledo, Ohio/Roy C. Start H.S.) could play either outside or at middle blocker. The two sport athlete earned All-City honors twice. As a senior she had nine matches with at least 10 kills, and three with at least 15. Brown also was also invited to play in the 2002 Salt Lake City National Meet as a District #1 All-Star.
Who's Back: Illinois had one of the top defenses around last year season, leading the Big Ten in opposing hitting percentage (.176). Illinois held Penn State to a just .131 attack percentage in Champaign and Ohio State to .180. Three of the reasons behind that have been defensive specialists Kathleen Bazzetta (Naperville, Ill/Naperville North H.S.) and Beth Vrdsky (Downers Grove, Ill./D.G. South), and libero Lauren Harks (St. Charles, Ill./St. Charles, H.S.). Bazzetta has played in every match of her college career and last year ranked 20th in the Big Ten in digs per game (.263). She had a match-high 18 digs in the victory over #20 Minnesota last season With one year left in her career, Harks already ranks sixth on the Illinois career digs list with 993. With another strong year, Harks could move into first, currently standing 433 behind all-time leader Tracey Marshall. Last season, Harks had a career-high 393 and and ranked ninth in the Big Ten in digs per game (3.28). Vrdsky was virtually a starter, playing in 116 of 120 games and tallying 208 digs. She had seven matches in double-digit digs, including a career-high 17 in the victory over Minnesota. Junior Katy Pratapas (Naperville/Naperville Central) adds depth to an already-strong position. She plays an important and special role in team chemistry and exemplifies leadership qualities for the Illini. Who's Not: No one Newcomers: None
Defending national champion USC comes to Huff Hall in September. The Trojans, likely to be ranked number one in the pre-season polls, will participate in the 21st Annual State Farm Illini Classic Sept. 10-11. Illinois participates in three pre-conference tournaments, including the State Farm Illini Classic. The Illini also travel to the University of Miami and the University of Arkansas for three matches in each tournament. The Hurricane Invitational on Sept. 4-5 features Bowing Green, Rice and Miami. Besides USC, NCAA qualifier American University and Miami of Ohio round out the field at the Illini Classic, where. Illinois will be gunning for its 15th title in 21 years. Illinois wraps up the non-conference schedule with three matches at Arkansas (Sept. 17-18). The host Lady Razorbacks were 27-7 and advanced to the NCAA Second Round a year ago. Illinois also meets Houston and Ball State in Fayetteville.The schedule includes Illinois State and Loyola as well. The Big Ten will be strong again with Illinois among six conference teams that reached the NCAA Tournament in 2003. Last season Illinois went 14-1 at Huff Hall, its best season since 1992, which included wins over conference champion Penn State and Minnesota, who advanced to the Final Four.