Head coach Kevin Hambly's 2011 Illini squad is ranked as high as No. 3 nationally this week.
Sept. 8, 2011
By Mike Koon, Illinois Sports Information
That process began when Hardin and then-assistant Hambly elected to carry a smaller roster for a couple of years in order to pack in an elite recruiting class. That class, which graduated last year, ranked No. 7 nationally out of high school and gave Illinois its first first-team All-American in 14 years in Laura DeBruler, third-team All-American setter Hillary Haen and the nucleus of teams that have made three straight Sweet 16 appearances.
While those teams had talent and played tremendous defense by winning long rallies, they couldn't match the physicality of some of the elite teams. Johannah Bangert, for instance, became the Big Ten's all-time block assists leader despite standing just 6-1 and DeBruler became the school's all-time kills leader despite her 5-10 frame.
Since that time, Illinois has stacked consecutive top-10 classes. Hambly and the rest of the staff continue to stress defense, both at the net and in the back row, where sophomore libero Jennifer Beltran ranks near the top at her position nationally. But now the Illini, ranked eighth in the AVCA preseason coaches' poll, have in place the size to consistently go toe-to-toe with the top teams in the country.
"Take nothing away from the kids we had in the past, but this group is bigger, more physical and more athletic than we've been," Hambly said. "Does that mean we're going to be a better volleyball team? Time will tell. But I like the potential of this group a lot. We see some things in practice that are happening that we weren't capable of doing last year."
The tallest of those is 6-6 freshman Liz McMahon, an Ohio native who made more visits to the Illinois campus than can be counted on both hands. McMahon finally chose the Illini over Penn State, the program that has set the standard in the sport during the start of the 21st century. McMahon, like most of the freshmen, spent the summer on campus playing alongside her new teammates. The reports that the coaching staff got from the rest of the players and what they witnessed during the start of fall workouts were enough to pencil McMahon into the starting lineup on the right side.
With the addition of the current freshmen class, ranked third in the country, Illinois now has 11 players who ranked in the top 60 in their respective recruiting class nationally. They include McMahon (ranked No. 3), redshirt-freshmen middle blocker Anna Dorn (No. 6), Ward (No. 7), Bartsch (No. 16), freshman outside hitter Jocelynn Birks (No. 26), freshman outside hitter Morganne Criswell (No. 33), sophomore outside hitter Jazmine Orozco (No. 33), sophomore outside hitter Jessica Jendryk (No. 45), freshman outside hitter Ali Stark (No. 53), junior middle blocker Erin Johnson (No. 57) and Beltran (No. 60).
On the highly touted freshmen class, Hambly added, "They're athletic and they can play the game. How fast they can learn our system and get acclimated to college volleyball will determine whether or not they'll be on the floor. All four of them can play all the way around."
Illinois has more quality depth than ever before, especially at the outside. Hambly has consistently targeted players who can play all six rotations, which means a battle for court time and some competitive practices. Those players also fit the culture of family atmosphere, something which has been noticeable not only to the inner circle, but to the growing number of Illini fans.
The challenge at hand is a daunting one: unseat Penn State both in the Big Ten, where the Nittany Lions have won eight straight league titles, and nationally, were they have won four straight NCAA crowns. The Illini will be well-prepared come December for a deep run in the tournament. Of the 31 regular-season matches, 24 will be against teams who were ranked or received votes in the preseason poll. The Big Ten alone has seven teams in the top 25, which includes newcomer Nebraska, who checks in at No. 5.
"It might be tougher to win the Big Ten than to make a run in the (NCAA) Tournament," Hambly said. "It's tougher to be good for 20 matches than it is for six."
The volleyball buzz has definitely hit Champaign. Last year, the Illini sold out Huff Hall for the first time in 18 years. Those fans were treated to a thrilling five-set victory over Penn State, breaking the Lions' 65-match Big Ten winning streak. Over 300 people have attended Hambly's Volleyball 101 and 201 courses the past two years and a record number attended the preseason picnic put on by the Networkers, the support group for the Illini.
Huff Hall is a special place not only because of community support, but perhaps even more so because of the student support, where as many as 1,600 students have used their student ID to gain admission into Huff for a single match. Fans driving to Illini home football games will have the benefit of five weekends in which the volleyball and football teams both are at home. A ticket stub from football gets you in the door. As long as seats remain, that is.
On his team's expectations, Hambly stopped short of revealing his team's internal goals, but said, "I sure like the potential of this group, not just because of the athleticism, but also the character of the people. They are very serious about being good."