Shades of Olympian in volleyball’s Bartsch

Freshman Ashley Edinger spikes the ball in the fourth set of a match against Iowa at Huff Hall on Saturday. The Illini won in four sets, 25-23, 25-17, 19-25, and 25-15. Erica Magda

Freshman Ashley Edinger spikes the ball in the fourth set of a match against Iowa at Huff Hall on Saturday. The Illini won in four sets, 25-23, 25-17, 19-25, and 25-15. Erica Magda

By Anthony Zilis

If fans squinted their eyes and tilted their heads this weekend at Huff Hall, they might have thought they saw an Olympic gold medalist.

But it wasn’t solely Illini freshman Michelle Bartsch’s 21 kills or 10 block assists against conference foes No. 13 Minnesota and Iowa that triggered visions of Olympian Kerri Walsh, it was the medical tape that Bartsch donned on her right shoulder.

The tape, famously used by Walsh in Beijing, is meant to relieve tension in her aching shoulder.

Bartsch’s performance on the court, meanwhile, is relieving tension built up on an Illini squad ravaged by injuries to right outside hitters Kayani Turner and Nicole Kump. Bartsch’s outstanding performance on the block is unusual for a freshman, as blocking is a skill normally not developed until the end of a player’s sophomore year, said Illini head coach Don Hardin.

But her block isn’t the only skill that’s been coming around, evidenced by eye popping offensive statistics during the weekend’s games.

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“Sometimes if the set’s off or her rhythm is off, she would just blast it anyway, and it was an unnecessary error and she’s really learned to take control of those situations,” Hardin said. “She’s smart with where she hits the ball and when she hits the ball. She’s been getting better week by week.”

Even after the stellar performance, Hardin, sounding like a grade school teacher, prompted Bartsch.

“When you’re out of rhythm,” Hardin paused.

“Swing in bounds,” Bartsch replied.

Hardin not always so cool headed

Normally during an Illini volleyball match, Don Hardin isn’t seen leaving the bench during play. But Saturday against Iowa was a different story.

“It’s fair to say it’s the first time (assistant coach Kevin Hambly) and I were so upset about our performance, getting on people about things,” Hardin said.

This rare outburst was largely due to a 9-1 run in the third set by the Hawkeyes after the Illini jumped out to a 12-9 lead. Iowa would win the set but not the match.

“I think that we felt a little too comfortable and kind of backed off from attacking them and started making too many errors,” Sophomore setter Hillary Haen said.

Hardin thought downright laziness was a big reason for the lost set.

“Instead of moving our feet and getting under the ball we reached for it,” Hardin said. “We can’t do that in against any team. It’s just complacency. Lack of movement, lack of effort, lack of focus.”

Dual Setters

Setter is a highly specialized position in volleyball, which makes it all the more impressive that Haen has been playing right outside hitter in the absence of Turner and Kump, in addition to her duty as setter.

When Haen is on the front line, senior setter Lizzie Bazzetta is on the back line, giving the Illini more flexibility.

“If Lizzie passes, now that she knows I’m up there, she can just pass it up to the net and I can either put it over or set to the middle,” Haen said.

“I think it just opens up our options when Lizzie has to take the ball.”

Hardin trusts that Haen has the versatility to play multiple positions.

“She has a player’s mindset. She’s not an athlete learning the game. She’s an athlete that’s been playing the game for a long time,” he said.

And although she doesn’t get many sets, only seven over the two matches, when she does get a rare kill, she has a playful message for one of her standout teammates:

“That’s how you do it, Laura.”