Building its backbone: Take a look at Illinois’ defensive specialists


Eliana Chandra

Taylor Kuper hits the ball during the match against Indiana on March 27. Super, who earned All-Big Ten First-Team honors last season, will be an important returner for the Illini in 2021 due to a lack of depth in her position.

By Enji Erdenekhuyag, Staff Writer

For what Illinois volleyball lacks in numbers with defensive specialists, it holds up its end with its talent. This season, the backcourt of Illinois volleyball will fall into the hands of senior Taylor Kuper and freshmen Caroline Barnes and Becca Sakoda.

With the two new additions, learning and developing will be a major focus this year. But with a veteran like Kuper, this transition should soundly take shape. 

Kuper adopted the role as the team’s primary libero over the course of last year’s shortened season after Morgan O’Brien’s transfer to Texas left Illinois short-staffed with defensive specialists. Luckily, Kuper ended up being just what the Illini needed in a new libero. 

In her standout season, Kuper averaged a career-high 4.41 digs per set and earned a spot on the All-Big Ten First-Team, becoming the first defensive specialist or libero in program history to do so. Like an ace of all trades, Kuper also shined on the offensive end. She was the leading server in the conference, averaging 0.56 service aces per set. 

The only other defensive specialist on the roster from last season, Alyssa Eske, transferred to Coastal Carolina this year, so Barnes and Sakoda will bring Illinois necessary support on defense. 

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    Barnes comes from a long line of athletes, as four of her siblings play sports collegiately. The 5-foot-11 Illinois native helped take her Sports Performance club team to back-to-back AAU Volleyball Premier National Championships as a freshman and then again as a sophomore. She also competed with Adversity Volleyball Club as a junior and senior. 

    Sakoda, who hails from Honolulu, Hawaii, guided her high school volleyball team to win a state championship in 2018. She played with Kuikahi Volleyball Club and earned plenty of honors there, one of which was placing third at the Triple Crown Invitational in 18’s Elite. Like Kuper, she has an offensive edge, as she led the Interscholastic League of Honolulu in aces in 2019. 


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