Excellent blocking lesser-known key to Illinois volleyball success

Michelle Bartsch and Johannah Bangert aren’t sure when exactly their nickname was born. They just know it started during a radio broadcast of a match earlier this season and has stuck ever since.

Regardless, the “Killer B” blocking duo has propelled the defensive-minded Illinois volleyball team (16-3, 8-2) to a seven-match winning streak and a No. 6 national ranking.

“I think we have been doing well because we have such good players, with Jo in the middle and Michelle on the right side and Hillary (Haen) having experience from last year, it’s a really good system,” head coach Kevin Hambly said.

The Illini hold a 187.5-127 advantage over opponents for the whole year and have out-blocked eight of their 10 conference opponents, including Ohio State (17-7), Michigan (15-3), Purdue (17.5-10), Indiana (9.5-5), Wisconsin (19-5) and Iowa (16-8).

Illinois uses a blocking system called the read system. With this strategy, blockers read the hitters during the attack and decisions are made on the fly, making Illini blockers unpredictable. The blockers do not move until the ball is released by the opponent’s setter. This works because the opponents do not know which hitter is being blocked.

“The biggest thing for us is that our system requires a lot of teamwork,” Hambly said. “Most systems say, ‘OK, middle hitter you focus on the middle hitter, left side-right side, right side-left side.’ But for us, we have three blockers at the net, we got to stop everything.”

Blocking systems the Illini don’t use include “fronting,” where a certain blocker, called the quick hitter, defends the ball every time, or “passing,” where the middle blocker reacts sooner. In these systems players are moving before the point even begins, which may result in the wrong person being blocked.

“The blocking system we run is absolutely perfect for me because I am a smaller but quicker middle,” Bangert said. “It really allows me to use my speed going along the net to get a good look and make sure I am getting the right move.”

Bangert is currently leading the nation in blocks, posting 1.67 average blocks per a set. She tied the school record twice this season with 13 block-assists. Bangert also won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week twice this season.

“I ended up last year as No. 1 (in blocks) and it’s definitely something I would like to do again, and more importantly it’s exciting because I know that my blocking is helping our team out,” Bangert said.

Hambly said Bangert is a great blocker because she has really good eyes, which is essential for a middle blocker. She has to watch what the setter is doing and then move and react quickly.

“(Johannah) has done a lot of eye work to improve, and her block is just natural. She may not be tall, but she makes up for it in speed,” Hambly said. “She’s dynamic and she works really well with the system, that’s why we recruited her.”

Also stepping forward as a blocker this season has been freshman Erin Johnson, who is getting used to the new system.

Hambly said blocking is the hardest skill to adjust to at the collegiate level, but after a rough start, Johnson is “not even a freshman anymore, she plays more like a sophomore blocker.”

Johnson has 60 blocks this season. Her best match was last weekend, when she had one solo block and six block-assists against Iowa.

“Our blocking system takes a lot of discipline and that discipline is pretty hard to get used to,” Johnson said. “I am not used to such a dynamic block, you really need to go up aggressively and stop the ball.”

In a dynamic and aggressive blocking system, it is essential for good communication between the blockers. Bangert said the Illini use hand signals and talk a lot at the net to make sure “everybody knows exactly what we are doing.”

“The thing that outsiders don’t always realize is that the block is kind of like the front line of the defense,” Bangert said. “We might not always get the touches or the blocks, but as long as we get up there it’s a lot easier for the defense to move around, putting up a good block helps the back row a lot.”