Ward shows off hard-hitting skills vs. Michigan State

Colleen Ward was a middle blocker in seventh grade.

The middle blocker position is known for its defense and opportunity for big blocks.

Eight years later, anyone who knows the Illinois senior would define her by her big hops and hard-hitting kills.

“She jumps high and she hits really hard … she’s way more controlled and doesn’t make a ton of errors,” head volleyball coach Kevin Hambly said. “She keeps the ball in play, there are a lot of big hitters who don’t keep the ball in play. The thing that has changed this year is she’s hitting more shots and using the block a little more. … She’s actually moving the ball around and playing smarter.”

Ward, now an outside hitter, proved her rocket arm and accuracy last Saturday, as the Naperville, Ill., native tallied 22 kills and only one error “against Michigan State”:https://www.dailyillini.com/index.php/article/2011/10/no_typical_story_volleyball_ekes_out_victory_over_spartans.

The 22 kills she recorded is a personal season high, and she said it was a successful night because she made better decisions and smarter swings. Ward also hit .538, another season high.

“Saturday was awesome, when you have an outside hitting over .300 you get excited, and (Ward) had one error, it’s pretty cool to have that,” setter Annie Luhrsen said. “I think she really carried the team when other people were struggling, and I could set her from anywhere on the court and we could get a kill and that’s not always the case with outsides.”

The relationship between setter and hitter for Luhrsen and Ward started long ago when at 13 years old they played on the same club team.

That long-term relationship, which lasted through competing against each other in high school and then “both transferring”:https://www.dailyillini.com/index.php/article/2011/08/haen_gone_luhrsens_time_to_shine_for_illini_volleyball to Illinois from different colleges, has helped connect the two players.

“I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it, but I think we’re used to a lot of the same stuff because we grew up playing the same style,” Luhrsen said. “And even though Illinois is different, there is still a lot of similarities, and it does give a level of comfort.”

Though she transferred to Illinois from Florida last year, Ward said she feels like she’s been an Illini for a while and can’t believe it is her senior year. She said she and fellow senior and “outside hitter Michelle Bartsch”:https://www.dailyillini.com/index.php/article/2011/09/4e66dffbc5e06 have stepped up in a leadership role, but more by example than vocally.

Ward isn’t the only one who can’t believe she’s only been here for two years, as Bartsch feels the same way.

“It’s only her second year playing here, which is still weird to think about,” Bartsch said. “If I think about my second year playing here I was still spinning in the head and still trying to figure stuff out. She’s just been doing such a great job. She’s a stud.”

Since transferring, Hambly believes Ward has become more relaxed on the court this season and understands the Illinois system better.

“I think the thing I’ve seen from her is she’s loosened up and becoming a player,” Hambly said. “Last year she was kind of stiff, she didn’t understand our system very well. I thought her block was average, the subtleties of the game were lost on her, and she’s starting to learn those now.”

Ward’s blocking and improved defensive knowledge are two of the things she has developed in her time at Illinois.

“I mean, to me she’s learned how to play defense,” Hambly said. “When she came, she didn’t know how to play defense, I mean that’s defining it by our defense. She’s figured out our system, she knows how we want to play.”

Now, despite figuring out Hambly’s system, both Luhrsen and Bartsch credit Ward as a great teammate. Being funny and sweet off the court makes Ward easy to like.

“She’s just a really good teammate, she cares about bringing the team together,” Luhrsen said. “I mean, everyone does, but she makes sure she has a relationship with every single person on the team and can relate to everyone and I think that is really cool.”