Vicki Brown brings heart, soul to team

By Jessica Warchall

“The quintessential team player” were the first words her coach used to describe junior Vicki Brown.

Since the 6’2″ middle blocker came to Illinois as a freshman more than two years ago, volleyball head coach Don Hardin said she continually works hard to achieve perfection for herself and her team on and off the court.

The basketball court was what Brown was used to until her 7th grade basketball coach said she needed to pick a sport to keep in shape during the off-season.

“I could choose cross-country or volleyball,” Brown said. “I’m not much of a runner.”

Brown continued to play volleyball and basketball until her senior year in high school, even though she knew during her sophomore year she would play volleyball at the college level.

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“In volleyball you cannot have six people on the court that can’t pass, set or attack,” Brown said. “In basketball it felt like you could be OK and still be a starting five, but in volleyball you have to be on your game; you compete every practice for your spot.”

This year Brown is proving her place on the court. She has played in every game, hitting .395 on the season, the highest on the team and among the top 20 in the nation.

During her freshman year she played 40 games, posting a .159 hitting percentage In her sophomore year she hit .271 in 117 games.

Hardin said Brown was not a highly recruited athlete.

In fact, Illinois was the only Top 25 program recruiting her.

Even though she had offers at “mid-major schools,” he said Brown did not want to settle.

Brown wanted to make her future better, and she knew the athletics and academics would be challenging at Illinois.

“Where I come from, and for my family’s background, college is not something you have to do,” Brown said. “For me to say I’m in my third year and I’m going to finish is a big achievement for me and my family and for people back at home who look up to me and say, ‘Hey, I can do that.'”

As a history major focusing on secondary education, Brown wants to be able to help the kids that look up to her.

She thinks teaching in school is more than just teaching a subject, she said it is teaching life.

Brown taught Sunday school at her local church in Toledo, Ohio, during high school.

“When I go back home, (my students) remember the lessons I taught them and my heart melts,” Brown said. “There’s nothing else like that to me.”

However, before Brown teaches, she wants to coach at a high school varsity level. She recognizes the talent in public schools and said if the students have “up-to-date coaches” they will succeed.

Sophomore outside hitter Kayani Turner said her teammates and coaches ask a lot of Brown as a leader, and she always answers.

Hardin said Brown does not just say the right things to her teammates, but she actually feels them.

“Vicki cares deeply about how we do as a group,” Hardin said. “She cares much less about her personal performance unless it comes to impact the team performance.”

Last spring Hardin told Brown he expected her to step into a leadership role this season and keep everyone together on the court in order to keep their game mentality.

This has helped the Illini to an 11-3 record, going 2-2 in Big Ten play.

Brown said her strength is hitting. On the season she has 197 kills in 349 total attacks, averaging 3.94 kills per game; the second most on the team, following Turner.

She hit a career-high 24 kills on Sept. 9 at the UNC tournament versus Wichita State.

In fewer than half the games she played in her 2005 season, Brown has more than half of her 283 kills earned last year.

Sophomore setter Lizzie Bazzetta said she fuels Brown’s attacks, saying Brown goes after every ball she sets to her and is willing to work hard for the team.

“Ability takes you only so far; there has to be heart and soul that takes you the rest of the way and Vicki definitely has that,” Turner said. “There’s no question that she brings that every day to practice.”

Hardin said Brown’s weakness is her strength in excess. Her strengths – aggressiveness, competitive spirit and tremendous athleticism – can get her “past the zone of control or rhythm” the Illini offense has, Hardin said.

“Vicki brings a competitive spirit – she’s out here to prove herself,” Bazzetta said.

“She brings her best, and when she is doing that, everyone else wants to play their best for her – she’s obviously a weapon on our team,” she added.

Even though she said her weakness is blocking, Brown averages 1.12 blocks per game and has 56 for the season, 13 of which are solo blocks and 43 assists.

Last season she recorded zero blocks and had one in 2004.

Turner attacks and blocks alongside Brown, earning them the nickname “Batman and Robin.”

A trainer coined the nickname last season.

Turner is Batman, laid back, but lethal. Brown is the full-of-energy Robin.

Bazzetta said she has never seen Brown without energy, which the middle blocker uses to help the Illini achieve their team goals.

A team goal for the season is to be ranked no less than fifth in the Big Ten and go as far as the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament, Brown said.

She wants to help the Illinois volleyball program reach another level.

“Not a lot of people are used to Illinois winning games,” Brown said.

“We are looked at as the underdog or the team that upsets teams; I want to change that to where teams try to upset us or people look at us as the team to beat,” she added.

Brown assures the fans, “The one game you miss is going to be the one you hear about.”

Her main individual goal is to play volleyball overseas after she graduates.

Hardin said she will most likely play volleyball abroad if she does not make the USA National team, which is the Olympic team.

Illinois assistant volleyball coach Kevin Hambly is helping Brown prepare for the USA National team tryouts since he was an assistant coach on the team from 2001-2004.

Hardin said during the off-season the team will get Brown to tryouts for National B teams and National A2 teams, comprised mostly of college players.

“Vicki has another year of progress and she is already capable of playing overseas,” Hardin said. “She needs to continue her ability to control the ball; she’s still learning to read the opponents’ offense and out-guess them, but she’s starting to think for herself out there.”

He said Brown’s biggest achievement is taking on the academic challenge and the athletic challenge at Illinois that is way beyond the level she was prepared to do.

When she came to campus she was less experienced than any player on the team and now she is proving herself to be one of the best in the country, Hardin said.

“People see (Brown) now and say she is a tremendous athlete,” Hardin said. “But they don’t realize the work she put in to get where she is.”

In Hardin’s 11 years of coaching, he said Brown is the hardest working player he has ever coached.

“Vicki’s mind rules her body, and she won’t let it quit – she never stops,” Hardin said. “She works through fatigue when no one can go any further; even when she can’t go any further, she makes herself do one or two more.”