Volleyball heading to BYU: Freshmen get opportunity to adjust, ‘fit into system’

Ali Stark’s first road game might have come quicker than expected.

Stark and the rest of the Illinois volleyball team’s four freshmen are still trying to navigate their way around campus. But before they can get accustomed to campus life, they must set foot on new terrain this weekend when the Illini travel to Provo, Utah, for their season opener against BYU.

For Stark, though, the transition was easier thanks to the Illini veterans.

“They’ve been helping us find our way around, which is awful,” Stark said. “I’m definitely getting lost here and there, but I’m finding everything OK.”

Illinois boasts the No. 3 ranked freshman class, and a weekend away at the BYU Nike Invitational will give the newcomers a chance to experience the Orange and Blue system.

“I’m really excited to travel for the first time with the team and kind of figure out what we do, like pregame, and how it is on the road opposed to at home,” said Stark, Illinois’ right-side hitter.

Last Saturday, No. 8 Illinois held its annual alumni match and gave the Illini their first match-feel competition. It also gave head coach Kevin Hambly some tapes to review during the week and pinpoint what he’d like his team try to perfect this weekend.

“Every weekend, we have good tape,” Hambly said. “The first one, you have more stuff to look at because we weren’t good. We were pretty mediocre. We were average. And the girls watched it and felt the same way. But that’s just what happens when you have two weeks to prepare and have to play.”

Hambly’s checklist included better decision-making when attacking, better play at the end of sets, and better passing.

“One of the main things we talked about was to just being able to focus and close out matches, being able to push through,” Stark said. “That’s basically what we’ve been working on in practice, is in a close-type match, being able to push through mentally and physically.”

The second and third set of the alumni match may prove telling of close matches in the future. Though the current Illini held off the alumni in the first set with nine points, the alumni lost the second set by just two and took the third set, 25-21. But the Illini held on to take the fourth.

This weekend’s competition includes St. Mary’s and UC-Santa Barbara. It allows Hambly to experiment with different lineups and rotations in preparation for the conference season.

“We’re going into that match working on our side of the court, figuring out our kinks, still working out our system and chemistry,” sophomore Jennifer Beltran said.

The Illini have a new look this season, after graduating four seniors and bringing in a taller group, all who stand above 6 feet. Beltran isn’t worried about the freshmen fitting into the system.

“One of the biggest things we hold pride to on our team is our communication level, especially being very direct on and off the court,” Illinois’ starting libero said. “That’s something I think this team is really good at.”