Illinois Volleyball Year in Review
Dec. 19, 2012
Champaign, Ill. - Head Coach Kevin Hambly and the 2012 Fighting Illini volleyball team had an incredibly difficult task to complete this season; how to follow the most successful season in program history. Fielding a young team, featuring four underclassman starters and with just four upperclassmen seeing regular playing time, the Illini had a lot to learn in a short amount of time. Add to the mix one of the most difficult schedules in the nation, and it's easy to see just how much credit this fledgling team deserves.
The young Illini squad opened the season on Aug. 24 with a trip to the Dayton Flyer Classic, where they would begin the year against Dayton and Pepperdine, 2011 NCAA Tournament participants who were both ranked for the majority of the 2012 season. With four young starters, including redshirt freshmen Jocelynn Birks and Ali Stark replacing 2011 All-American outside hitters Michelle Bartsch and Colleen Ward, the Illini were not quite ready, falling 3-0 to the Flyers and the Waves. The young Birks found her footing in the third match of the tournament, leading the Illini to their first victory of the season, a four-setter over Ohio, tabbing eight kills in the first set alone and putting up a total of 19 in the match. Senior middle Erin Johnson showed her leadership against the Bobcats, putting up six blocks while hitting .312, while sophomore Anna Dorn hit over .300 in all three matches to earn all-tournament honors.
The team returned home the following weekend to host then-No. 15 Iowa State in a pair of matches for the Fighting Illini Classic. On the night the 2011 NCAA National Finalist banner was raised, 3,770 fans watched the Illini take down the Cyclones, 3-0, marking the largest opening-night crowd in school history. This trend continued throughout the season, as the Illini faithful put together the second-best attendance in program history, averaging 2,809 fans per match for a total of 33,713 spectators in 12 home matches. The 2012 average attendance, which ranked ninth in the nation this season, was second only to the 1992 season, when the Fighting Illini won a share of the Big Ten title, advanced to the Elite Eight, and hosted their first-ever NCAA Regional, which saw three of the top-5 volleyball crowds ever to fill Huff Hall.
The Illini dropped the second match against Iowa State, 3-2, in the first of what would soon become the norm, a five-set match. Of the 30 matches in 2012, a school-record 13 of them went the distance, including 10 of the Illini's 20 Big Ten matches. The tiebreaking fifth set can often prove unforgiving, but the young squad battled through, going 5-8 overall and 4-6 in Big Ten play.
The following weekend, Illinois travelled to Cincinnati for the Big Ten/BIG EAST Challenge. Once again, the Illini won the first match, defeating Cincinnati, 3-1, but dropped a five-setter to then-No. 24 Louisville to split on the weekend. The young squad then took to Austin for the Time Warner Cable Texas Invitational, where the pieces finally seemed to come together. The Illini knocked off then-No. 6 Texas, 3-2, on their home court before sweeping the tournament with wins over UCF and Cincinnati. As it would play out, following their loss to the Illini, the Longhorns would go on to win the next 17-straight matches and claim the 2012 NCAA Championship. The Illini's high caliber road win over the Longhorns gave the inexperienced team an added boost of confidence, that would hopefully be just what the doctor ordered heading into conference play.
The Orange and Blue hosted then-No. 12 Minnesota and Wisconsin in late September to begin the Big Ten season. The Golden Gophers had the Illini's number in the conference opener, winning 3-0, but Illinois then took down the Badgers in five sets in front of over 3,200 fans. Illinois won its first road conference match at Indiana, winning in four, but let a close one at No. 13 Purdue slip through their fingers, falling in the frustrating fifth set.
Illinois took on No. 19 Ohio State and No. 1 Penn State in Huff Hall the following weekend, in a pair of matches that would set the tone for the 2012 season. The Fighting Illini ran up at 2-0 lead over the Buckeyes in the annual Breast Cancer Awareness match, but after the intermission, Ohio State stormed back to tie the match, and eked out a 15-12 victory in the fifth to stun the Illini in Huff. The Orange and Blue looked to extend their winning streak over top-ranked PSU to three the following evening, winning the first set, 25-23, but then fell behind, 2-1. Illinois won the fourth, 26-24, to force a fifth set, then found itself at match point, leading 14-10. However, the young Illini were unable to put the finishing touches on the match, and a late surge by the Nittany Lions prevented the upset, winning the fifth, 18-16.
After falling in five sets three nights in a row, it was hard not to lose focus. The Illini had their first midweek match of the season scheduled for four days later, and with morale down, the Orange and Blue fell at Michigan, 3-0.
Looking to make a change, Coach Hambly added true freshman Alexis Viliunas to the starting lineup at Michigan State. The first-year setter had expected to use the season as a redshirt year, learning from talented senior setter Annie Luhrsen, but with the team in need of a jump start, the coaching staff believed her relaxed yet bubbly personality would be just the boost the team was looking for to get back on track. The Illini got off to a tentative start, falling behind 0-2 in East Lansing, but the team stayed calm and battled its way back to force a fifth set, and for the first time in four opportunities, came out victorious, 15-8. Viliunas was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week for her match-winning performance.
The Orange and Blue returned home rejuvenated, defeating Northwestern, 3-2, four days later.
Illinois hosted then-No. 4 Nebraska the following Sunday on ESPN2, where the Huskers put the Illini back in a downward slide with a rough 3-0 defeat. An 0-2 road trip up North hurt the Illini's confidence, but with Luhrsen back in the starting lineup, the Illini hoped to avenge their first five-set Big Ten loss with a visit by then-No. 22 Purdue on Halloween. The Illini had the first set point, but couldn't close the door, dropping the frame, 26-24. Illinois then won the second and third sets, but the Boilermakers came out on top in the fourth to send the Illini back to that familiar fifth set. Purdue opened the frame with a 5-0 lead, prompting an attempt at a momentum shift -- Viliunas. The Illini won the next three-straight points, but were unable to overcome the early deficit, falling in five once again, 15-9.
A victory over Indiana brought some cheer to the Illini faithful, but time was running out for the Orange and Blue. On short rest, Illinois flew to State College, Pa., to face the Nittany Lions, who had not lost at Rec Hall in nearly a year -- since falling to Illinois, 3-0, on Nov. 11, 2011. Unfortunately, the Illini were unable to create a repeat of last season, falling in three sets.
The Illini put themselves in position to win at No. 15 Ohio State in the following match, but once again struggled with finishing, winning two sets by a score of 25-16, but dropping the first and third, 25-23, to end up back in another fifth set. The Illini had the first two chances at match point, but could not quite pull it off, falling, 17-15.
With their NCAA Tournament eligibility on the line, the Illini hosted Michigan State on Nov. 16. Sitting at 11-15, the Illini needed to defeat the Spartans to remain on track for a .500 season. The Orange and Blue won the first two sets, but just as they did to the Spartans in East Lansing, MSU got its revenge, winning the final three sets to defeat Illinois, 3-2, and knock the Illini out of contention.
While disappointed, the team felt a weight lifted off their shoulders the following night, when they Michigan on Senior Night. Jessica Jendryk and Tayler Onion found themselves in the starting lineup, and without the pressure they had felt all season, the relaxed Illini played one of their best matches of the year, defeating the Wolverines, who would go on to play in the Final Four just a few weeks later, 3-1.
Outside hitters Jocelynn Birks and Liz McMahon helped the Illini finish the season on a high note, totaling of 96 kills in the final two matches of the season to lead the Orange and Blue to end the year on a 3-0 run with victories at Northwestern and Iowa. McMahon tabbed the first Illini 30-kill match in over four years against the Wildcats, while Birks put up 28 kills in her 11th 20-kill match of the season.
The Illini accumulated many honors throughout the season, many of which were earned by redshirt freshman outside hitter Jocelynn Birks. The Willow Grove, Ill., native was named Big Ten Player and Freshman of the Week on Sept. 17 after her breakout performance in Texas. She then earned three Freshman of the Week honors in the month of November, finishing the season with a team-best 570.5 points, 510 kills, 27 aces and ranked second with 262 digs. Though missing the postseason, she still posted the 10th-most kills in a season all time at Illinois. Named to the Big Ten/BIG EAST Challenge All-Tournament Team and MVP of the Texas Invitational, Birks finished the season with Big Ten All-Freshman honors and an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention. She completed her rookie campaign ranked 44th in the nation in kills and 52nd in points, while finishing third nationally among freshmen in kills and fifth in points.
Sophomore outside Liz McMahon finished second on the team, with 400 kills, and added 97 blocks to earn her first All-Big Ten award. Jessica Jendryk was also honored by the conference, earning the Sportsmanship Award.
Several Illini worked their way up the record books throughout the season, highlighted by libero Jennifer Beltran in the career digs category. The junior finished the season in second place at Illinois with 1,694 career digs, and is on track to become the all-time digs leader next fall. Additionally, she sits in 13th all-time in Big Ten history. Senior Erin Johnson retires as one of the all-time greatest middle blockers in Illinois history, ranking third in career block assists (445), sixth in total blocks (471) and 11th in hitting percentage (.311). Annie Luhrsen, the final Big Ten Setter of the Week of 2012, finished her career with 2,806 assists at Illinois, good for eighth all time.
Anna Dorn's efficiency on the attack helped lead the Illini to big victories throughout the season, completing the season ranked 19th in the nation with a .383 hitting percentage, which places ninth all-time at Illinois. The sophomore middle was named to all three All-Tournament teams in the preseason, and currently ranks fifth at Illinois with a .357 career hitting percentage.
The Illini also excelled in the classroom, leading the conference with 10 Academic All-Big Ten award winners, in Courtney Abrahamovich, Morganne Criswell, Anna Dorn, Jessica Jendryk, Erin Johnson, Annie Luhrsen, Liz McMahon, Tayler Onion, Ali Stark and Jackie Wolfe. Additionally, Dorn garnered Capital One Academic All-District First Team honors.