Illini volleyball finishes ninth in conference

Vicki Brown (2) returns the ball during the first game of the match against Indiana University at Huff Hall, Friday Nov. 17. Beck Diefenbach

Vicki Brown (2) returns the ball during the first game of the match against Indiana University at Huff Hall, Friday Nov. 17. Beck Diefenbach

By Lucas Deal

For the second consecutive season, the Illinois volleyball team was blindsided by a barrage of injuries that ravaged its roster and left it a shell of its former self.

After a 9-1 start, the team finished the 2006 season on Saturday at Ohio State with a 15-15 overall record and a 6-14 Big Ten mark.

Over the course of the season, eight Illini players missed time with injuries while three more were forced to leave the team for personal and medical reasons.

The year could have been a complete disaster, but the team was able to keep it together and able to avoid a losing record.

“It’s actually pretty remarkable that we were able to pull off a decent record,” Illinois head coach Don Hardin said. “We could have really come apart down the stretch, but the girls battled down to the last match, the last game, even the last point. I’m really proud of that.”

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Hardin added that even though the Illini lost their final three matches and five of their last six, they did play well early in the season when they were healthy.

“There are four teams in the NCAA Tournament we’ve beaten this season,” he said. “When we were playing well, and playing with a full roster, we were a good team.”

During the offseason between the 2005 and 2006 seasons, the Illini lost five players – two to graduation and three to injuries. While the losses were a definite detriment, the Illini were able to shrug them off during their non-conference schedule as they opened the season 7-0. Unfortunately, a season-ending knee injury to starting defensive specialist Kristine Anderson during the team’s seventh match started a tailspin of injuries that didn’t officially end until the season ended Saturday night in Columbus.

Following Anderson’s injury, fellow starters Kayani Turner and Amy Palash missed significant time with leg and knee injuries while reserves Stefanie Alde and Beth Vrdsky also spent time out. The injury bug peaked in mid-November, when starting setter Lizzie Bazzetta was knocked out for the remainder of the season with a broken hand.

“Having so many injuries, we didn’t even know who could play some matches until right before game time,” Hardin said.

The injuries did allow for considerable playing time for some of Illinois’ younger players, including freshmen Ashley Edinger and Kylie McCulley.

And with every injured player except Vrdsky expected back next season, Hardin thinks the 2007 Illini might finally be able to put it all together and contend for another Big Ten title.

“Obviously, 2006 was not the season we hoped for,” Hardin said. “However, we did get the opportunity to play our younger players and they gained valuable experience; and the girls we still had that were healthy played their hearts out. That’s definitely a positive we can take into next year.”