Illini volleyball no longer a young team


Illinois’ Alexis Villunas (8) bumps the ball during an NCAA Tournament second-round match against Marquette at Huff Hall on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013. The Illini won 3-1.

By By: Stephen Bourbon

In an offseason riddled with change, the Illinois volleyball program is eager to see more of the same this season.

Unlike years prior, the Illini roster is riddled with battle-tested juniors and seniors who have been thrown into the fire as underclassmen.

“We’re way ahead of where we usually are at this time of year,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “We’re more excited about that than the new floor, or the new branding or any of that stuff. The familiar things are what we’re more excited about.”

Having continuity brings an unusual problem for Hambly and his staff: How to allocate playing time to a bundle of players jockeying for playing time in the rotation.

After only losing libero Jennifer Beltran — the program’s all-time digs leader — and defensive specialist Courtney Abrahamovich to graduation, competition has been fierce in the back row.

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    “It’s pretty much a dogfight,” sophomore Danielle Davis said. “It’s been like that for a lot of positions.”

    Davis, along with junior Julia Conard and freshman Brandi Donnelly, has been competing in practice for months with still no definitive answers as the season approaches.

    One change schematically is that the Illini will be using a 6-2 attacking offense, rather than the 5-1 they have run in years past. The 6-2 puts two setters in the game and makes sure the setter is always in the back row, rather than anywhere in the rotation with a 5-1. It trades off the ability to have three attackers on the front line, while sacrificing the ability for the setter to “dump” the ball over the net, rather than setting.

    While the Illini return setter Alexis Viliunas, nothing has been guaranteed to her as sophomores McKenna Kelsay and Allison Palmer have been pushing the incumbent hard for playing time. Vilinuas is more of an attacking setter at 6-foot-1, while Kelsay and Palmer are smaller at 5-foot-7 and 5-foot-9, respectively.

    “They made us look at it real hard and commit to (the 6-2),” Hambly said of his setters. “It was a no-brainer for us.”

    “The level of respect among each other is the highest I’ve ever been around in a group,” senior Liz McMahon added. “We know if one girl deserves to play, we know that’s what the team needs.”

    The Illini are No. 11 in the AVCA preseason poll after finishing at No. 16 last season, one of seven Big Ten teams in the top 16 of the poll.

    Illinois is fifth in the Big Ten, behind No. 1 Penn State, No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 7 Nebraska and No. 8 Purdue.

    “Especially in preseason, we don’t even look at that stuff,” McMahon said. “Every season, we’re expecting a championship. So that’s our goal, we’re going to throw it out there and we’re working for that every day. It’s going to be really challenging, but that’s the standards we have here.”

    Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.