Illini thrilled to have DeBruler back for Penn State battle

For the past three years, Laura DeBruler has been a driving force on the No. 9 Illinois volleyball team. She has made a name for herself in the record books and on the court, playing in 112 straight matches.

But for the past two weeks, she has been missing, held at a standstill with 1,738 kills — just 23 behind the all-time record.

The woman who Illini head coach Kevin Hambly has coined the “god of Illini volleyball,” has sat on the bench for five matches.

She was sidelined due to mono, forced to watch from the bench as her team struggled and lost against No. 4 Nebraska and No. 25 Cincinnati.

“It was hard watching and not playing,” DeBruler said. “I really tried to be on the bench and to be vocal and to say things in the huddle, but it was hard not being out there and leading by example like I usually do. But I think my leadership was still felt by teammates which is the most important thing.”

But now, she’s back.

“It’s been two weeks, the only time we usually take a break like this is over Christmas break and summer,” DeBruler said. “So this was something different, it was out of my element.”

Tuesday was her first day of practice, where Hambly allowed her to practice but not scrimmage. She’ll do everything Wednesday and will take a day off to rest Thursday.

Then DeBruler will return to competition in the Big Ten opener against the mighty Penn State — the No. 2 team in the country, the team she has lost to six times, the team that has a 65-match winning streak in the Big Ten.

For her, there could not be a better time to return to the court.

“Playing Penn State is something you always look forward to,” DeBruler said. “I’m excited, it’s the game I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, I’m glad I’m able to come back and be ready for it.”

She’s ready to make her presence known again, no matter how much she has in her.

“She’s good to go, she’s cranked,” Hambly said. “If she’s 80 percent, she’s one of the best players in the country.”

Hambly’s ready to have her start because he knows her presence is needed on the court, and that’s where her leadership kicks in the most.

“It’s different to have her leadership on the bench than it is on the floor,” Hambly said. “The way she leads is by example. She’s not really a good example when she sits next to us.”

Her team is ready to have her on the court again. Junior Michelle Bartsch thinks playing with the combination of DeBruler and Ward makes the hitters an unstoppable force.

“It’s always fun to play with Laura, and her abilities are incredible, it surprises me what she can do every single day,” Bartsch said. “It will be good to have her back in the gym and practicing.”

Hambly said what they missed most about DeBruler was her defensive skills and passing.

“I think emotionally and mentally she’s ready,” Hambly said. “I’m more worried about Saturday, you know, how she’s gonna respond because we just don’t know, we’ll just play things by ear.”

And for DeBruler, it’s a bit less thinking.

“I’m just glad to be back,” she said.