Hambly: We are as good as Haen

Editor’s Note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down on Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Student-athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

On Nov. 28, the Illinois volleyball team fell at Minnesota in three sets with Hillary Haen on the court. Problem was, the junior setter was still recovering from sickness.

This week the Illini are preparing for their Sweet 16 match-up in the NCAA Tournament after a healthy Haen-inspired performance resulted in victories in the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

“We are as good as Hillary,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “When she was at 50 percent, we really struggled. She struggled. It’s huge to have her back. She’s the hub, everything goes through her.”

Haen racked up 35 assists last Thursday night as Illinois swept its first-round opposition, Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne. She then followed that up with 52 assists a night later as Illinois advanced to the Sweet 16 at the expense of Dayton.

“I have a very cool role because if I do my job, then the hitters look great,” Haen said. “But if I don’t, they can look pretty terrible. So just making sure that the ball is located in a spot that makes it easiest for them to score definitely helps.”

For Haen, it’s all about making sure the Illini score. She’s not the one to go up and smash a monster kill on her opponent, but she is the driving force behind a potent Illinois offense.

“She has really got a good feel for this offense,” Hambly said. “She has a good feel for when to put the players into certain situations so they can score and when is the right time to use them in the match.”

Haen has done just that all season, setting up her teammates to score. The Illini hitting attack has been dangerous all season, with kills coming from all over the court.

“It’s the best group that I’ve ever been able to set,” Haen said. “Everyone can score, so it’s great. It gives me the opportunity to just move the ball around a lot more and feel comfortable. Whoever it is up there I know they can score.”

Haen has been blessed with an amazing supporting cast of hitters, but the hitters are just as grateful to have the Crystal Lake, Ill., native.

“I think not just in this match, but throughout the whole year, Hillary has done a phenomenal job of distributing the ball,” junior Laura DeBruler said. “She’s putting up some really great balls for me. I can move it around and hit a lot of different shots, which is great as a hitter. And not just for me, but my other teammates, too.”

The Illini are in the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive year, much in part to Haen’s distribution. But Haen will have a major role to play if the Orange and Blue are to progress to the Elite Eight.

“It’s going to be all about Hillary,” Hambly said. “It’s like the quarterback in the NFL. It’s on them. She knows it and she’s accepted it. You can tell she’s got a good focus about her and she’s ready to kind of take it to the next step. I feel very confident with her running the show.”