A breath of fresh air



By Meghan Montemurro

College. A home away from home. For most freshmen, college is the time to meet new people, create lifelong bonds and form a new family. And for six freshmen at the University of Illinois, their second home resides mainly on the volleyball court. After being named the sixth-ranked recruiting class in the nation, the future is now – excitement and hope for the Illinois volleyball program.

It took Abby Nelson only one game from the stands at Huff Hall to recognize the electric atmosphere and the fans’ love for the team. Hillary Haen fell in love with the beautiful campus and the coaches. Lea Zarytsky was drawn to Illinois’ combination of academics and athletics. Laura DeBruler liked how the coaches looked out for her. For Nicole Kump it was the first time she felt like she was a part of a family. Johannah Bangert loved the women and saw the program was on the rise. These six players will go through the next four years together, hoping to accomplish their dreams and goals while bringing Illinois to the next level in volleyball.

Athletes compete with one goal in mind, to win a championship. For Haen, it is no different. When asked what she hoped to accomplish during her four years at Illinois, Haen did not hesitate with her answer.

“To win a national championship. I want to win a national championship,” Haen said with a broad smile.

For a program that has not won the Big Ten title since 1992 when it tied for first place with Penn State, time and effort have been put in by the coaches to bring in one of the best classes in the country. Hardin said the type of players he wants are those who want to win. He added that the key for recruits is to see a movement toward greatness. And, for a team riddled with injuries and struggling to get to .500 last season, the freshman class brings needed depth to the mix as well as competition for the returnees. After losing only three players to graduation, the Illini plan to use a mix of veterans and newcomers. Illinois head coach Don Hardin said this class is unique in both quantity and quality and is ready for college volleyball and beyond.

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“It is also important for them to know that we prepare them with knowledge and new things for the next level such as the national team,” Hardin said.

Hardin added that the freshmen are not only incredible volleyball players, but incredible people as well.

“This group is very mature and is experienced beyond their years,” Hardin said. “They are very driven people and will not be denied.”

The first mission for the freshman class is simple: to help bring the Illinois program out from the Big Ten cellar. With the 2008 recruiting class already complete and two of the three scholarships given out for the 2009 class, Hardin said this class is the beginning and that future classes will be even better. With struggles the past few years, Hardin is grateful that he has had support from Athletic Director Ron Guenther.

“We’ve survived with good attitude and have worked hard to bring in the best recruits we can,” Hardin said. “Now we have to get (the freshmen) seasoned and then start earning respect.”

Despite five of the six freshmen living in Illinois, each said the atmosphere Hardin and the coaching staff created was one of the main driving forces in their decision to choose the University. Bangert said she knows Hardin wants the best for his players and looks out for them like a parent. DeBruler added that he is not only a coach, but also a father figure.

“He told us that you can call us at 2 a.m. and we’ll come help you if you’re in trouble,” Zarytsky said.

The sense of stability with this new family is comforting for the newcomers.

“It’s pretty neat because we do have such a big class that we can all lean on each other because we are all going through it together,” Haen said.

Even though they are tagged as the sixth best in the country, second in the Big Ten behind Minnesota and right behind national champion Nebraska, each freshman agreed they’ll be able to live up to the hype.

“We don’t feel the pressure,” Kump said. “It’s more exciting than anything.”

Nelson said the attention from other people is nice, but it creates more pressure. Luckily, the help from the upperclassmen eases most of it.

With the new season and a new chapter in their lives under way, these six freshmen look eagerly to the future, one that is filled with hope and promise.

“We’re all on the poster, but that’s like the only reason people really know us,” Nelson said.

Pretty soon, that won’t be the case.

No. 13 Johannah Bangert

6 foot 1 Middle Blocker

Washington, Mo.

Washington High School

Born: Sept. 3, 1988

Major: Secondary Education/Mathematics

Hobbies: Scrapbooking and crafts

Hardin on Bangert: “Johannah has the speed and the blocking to go outside to outside or pin to pin.”

No. 1 Laura DeBruler

5 foot 11 Outside Hitter

Downers Grove, Ill.

Downers Grove North High School

Born: Nov. 21, 1988

Hobbies: Badminton, singing and scrapbooking

Hardin on DeBruler: “Laura is maybe the most complete player I’ve seen out of high school and going into college in all my years. She does all the skills well and plays like she’s been on the floor for two years now.”

No. 7 Nicole Kump

6 foot 1 Middle Blocker

Joliet, Ill.

Joliet Catholic Academy

Born: Sept. 18, 1988

Major: Kinesiology

Hobbies: Scrapbooking, playing the piano, drawing and singing

Hardin on Kump: “Nicole brings an all-around game. She’s crafty, she’s smart, has a wonderful attitude, never quits and impacts everyone around her in a very positive way.”

No. 4 Abby Nelson

6 foot 3 Middle Blocker

Chicago, Ill.

Marist High School

Born: Jan. 19, 1989

Major: Kinesiology

Hardin on Nelson: “Abby is a very intimidating blocker and when she gets in front her presence is felt and really hits a great ball.”

No. 8 Hillary Haen

5 foot 11 Setter

Crystal Lake, Ill.

Prairie Ridge High School

Born: Dec. 12, 1988

Major: Business

Hobbies: Photography, traveling and reading

Hardin on Haen: “Hillary’s the winner and the one who really wants this program to go in the right direction. She’s really dedicated to pushing her teammates and competing to earn her role.”

No. 3 Lea Zarytsky

5 foot 6 Defensive specialist/Libero

Hawthorn Woods, Ill.

Stevenson High School

Born: Jan. 27, 1989

Major: Business

Hardin on Zarytsky: “Lea’s one of the best walk-ons that we’ve ever had here in many, many years.”