Younger players boost talent, depth on team



By Meghan Montemurro

Record one of the top freshman seasons in school history? Check. Lead all freshmen in the nation in kills per game? Check. Prepare to lead the team to the upper tier of the Big Ten and an NCAA Tournament appearance? Check.

Sophomore outside hitter Laura DeBruler splashed onto the Big Ten and national volleyball scene last season as one of the prized recruits in Illinois’ No. 6 ranked recruiting class. Her 4.89 kills per game forced opponents to take notice of the Pre-Season All-Big Ten hitter.

One area of play where the Illini struggled during the 2007 season was winning close games. While those games remain fresh in the team’s mind, any lingering effects from the losses were quickly ruled out during Illinois’ media day.

“I think, especially with our Italy trip, it helped a lot playing teams over there,” DeBruler said. “Just having more experience playing all together is going to be good and then being able to, hopefully this year, overcome games that are really tight or in the fifth match and just being able to win.”

But as the season opener approaches, Illinois starts with a clean slate.

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“All of the returning spots are vastly improved,” Illinois head coach Don Hardin said. “They are reporting in better shape than I’ve seen them in quite a few years, and I think they are genuinely enthusiastic about the entire season. They are playing better; they sense that.”

An ongoing development for the Illini that will continue this season is the availability of 6-foot-2 outside hitter Kayani Turner. Turner suffers from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), a neurological condition affecting the nerves in her legs, which may recede in severity or even disappear and return at a later time. Turner is able to compete with the condition, but admitted it is a day-by-day process and is going to be treated as such.

“My injury’s still there, so it’s not completely gone yet, so I’m still dealing with it,” Turner said. “It’s one of those injuries that you can’t control … it’s not as bad as it was when I stopped playing in 2006.”

Turner sat out of the entire 2007 season due to RSD. When Turner is in the lineup, her impact does not go unnoticed by teammates and coaches. Hardin said Turner’s skills afford flexibility in the lineup.

“She’s a tremendous blocker and a great presence on the court,” Hardin said of Turner. “She has a calming and comforting impact on the overall demeanor of the team when they play and (Turner) gives us depth because she’s able to play the left side.”

With Turner’s return and the arrival of four new freshmen – Michelle Bartsch, Keelin Bourne, Catherine Culligan and Rachel Feldman – Hardin and the Illini will implement a 6-2 system, which utilizes setters Lizzie Bazzetta and Hillary Haen on the court at the same time. Illinois attempted to incorporate the dual setter system last season but inexperience, injuries and lack of depth derailed the attempt. The 6-2 system will enhance the defense, taking pressure off libero Ashley Edinger and enabling larger block attempts for more blocks.

“It’s going to be our system of preference,” Harden said of the two-setter lineup. “If we can play and practice with it, that’s what we are going to do. We’re fortunate to have two great setters.”

The freshmen add depth to a squad that has been hurt by injuries the past few seasons. Hardin said Bartsch will have an opportunity to make an immediate impact and the team “is going to lean on her right away,” but “they are all ready to play.”

Bazzetta will continue to be an important cog in the offensive machine in her final season at Illinois, something that “hasn’t really sank in yet.”

“The three previous years have just flown by, and it doesn’t even sound right that I’m a senior,” Bazzetta said. “Our level of game stepped up tremendously throughout the spring, and we kind of started back at ground zero and then built it up again and now (the sophomores) all understand the whole system and we’re running different sets and different plays and everything is fitting together very nicely.”

A quick glance at Illinois’ 14-player roster reveals a team which features only four upperclassmen. While the Orange and Blue are young, the sophomore class gained valuable experience last season thanks to ample playing time, which is expected to pay dividends this season, especially in close contests.

“All five of us sophomores have experience playing so even though we are young in age, we aren’t so young in experience,” sophomore middle blocker Johannah Bangert said. “Everything we’ve done this past year since last fall will help us to be better this season.”

The Illini, who were picked by Big Ten coaches to finish fifth in the conference this season, have the necessary pieces to continue their ascent from the bottom of the Big Ten. A challenging non-conference schedule will adequately prepare Illinois for the tough Big Ten schedule after a tune-up game against alumni on Saturday. The season opens at Huff Hall against the North Carolina Tar Heels as part of the State Farm Illini Classic.

A solid showing in the home tournament will put the Illini on the right track in their quest for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004.

“The demanding pre-conference schedule is designed so that we can play at a much higher level … we can start playing volleyball at a higher clip or a higher level against great opponents,” Hardin said. “And then take that higher level into the first part of the Big Ten (season).”