Criswell’s energy spurs Illini volleyball


Illinois’ Morganne Criswell spikes the ball during a game against Purdue at Huff Hall. Criswell’s energy has helped the team all season, both on and off the court. 

The music starts. As Archie Eversole’s “We Ready” blasts from the speakers in Huff Hall, the Illinois volleyball team locks arms and begins to sway back and forth.

In the middle of their makeshift circle, Morganne Criswell starts to dance. The Illini’s starters for the match are introduced and Criswell continues to sway back and forth to the music, energizing her teammates as she does so.

Just as she tries to do during a match with her omnipresent vocal encouragement, Criswell’s pre-match dancing is just another way the senior outside hitter tries to get her team fired up. 

Although Criswell’s energy and intensity seems so natural to the Illinois volleyball faithful now as her career comes to a close, there was a time not that long ago when she wasn’t as positive or confident. In fact, there was a time in which Criswell didn’t want to play volleyball — she wanted to be a ballerina. 

Criswell was born in Pennsylvania but moved with her parents, David and Jane Criswell, to Decatur, Illinois, when she was 4. While sports would eventually become her life, it was dance that first caught Criswell’s eye.

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    Dance remained her passion until fifth grade when some of Criswell’s friends decided to pick up sports. Her friends chose basketball and volleyball and Criswell followed in their footsteps. 

    To Criswell, sport seemed more natural than dance, where she always felt hindered by her height.

    “I always thought I was an awkward dancer to begin with,” Criswell said.

    Despite the awkwardness, Criswell kept dancing until she had to miss a dance rehearsal for a basketball game. At that point her dance instructor gave her a choice. It was either going to be dance or sports. 

    Criswell chose to continue on with sports where, although she wasn’t initially the best, she felt right at home. 

    “I got the hang of what I was supposed to do and I really enjoyed it,” Criswell said. “So I felt I was better cut out for athletics than dance.” 

    She picked up track and continued to play basketball, but with each passing year Criswell’s love for volleyball grew. Criswell quit track after eighth grade and played basketball through freshman year of high school. But after freshman year she was faced with another decision.

    Volleyball had become more demanding, with Criswell playing for a club team, Illini Elite, that practiced three times a week for four hours a practice in Bloomington, Illinois, and had matches every weekend. Criswell chose to drop basketball and focus solely on volleyball.

    At the same time that her love for volleyball began to grow, so did Criswell’s love for the University of Illinois.

    As she got more and more into volleyball, Jane Criswell, Morganne’s mother, began taking the younger Criswell and her friends to volleyball games. The Criswell’s would sit directly behind the Illini bench to and before long the family had become such a staple at games that head coach Kevin Hambly would turn and wave to them. 

    Criswell said Huff Hall felt like home and she knew from an early age that she wanted to be an Illini. In the summer between her freshman and sophomore years of high school Criswell took her one and only college visit. 

    Illinois offered Criswell a spot on the team and she was told that she could have some time to think about it if she wanted to go on any other visits.

    “I answered right away,” Criswell said. “I was like, ‘No, I want to come here. I know I do.’” 

    Criswell would go on to rack up countless awards and records for her play in high school. She was named three-time Decatur Herald & Review Macon County Player of the Year, and finished her high school career at Lutheran School Association with 1,401 kills over her four years, the 12th-most kills in state history. 

    While she came in on a wave of high school success Criswell’s first year with the Illini wasn’t easy. She played in 11 sets and managed only 11 kills as Hambly played her sparingly behind two All-American outside hitters Colleen Ward and Michelle Bartsch.

    “To be honest, I really don’t even remember it that much,” Criswell said. “I know I was scared.

    “Playing college volleyball is an intimidating thing.”

    Criswell went to Bartsch and Ward for advice a lot during her freshman year. She tried to soak in all the information she could from them about how to pass, where to play defense, how to block and all of the other volleyball related questions she had.

    As she worked with her teammates to understand the complexities of college volleyball, Criswell worked with her coaches to fix her swing.

    Criswell said she’s always had a funky swing and that it was first noticed in high school by her club coaches. She would go in early and hit extra balls with the club coaches and she tried to change what they told her, but Criswell didn’t see her swing as that different from everyone else’s and she was scoring, so she didn’t really understand the problem.

    “I didn’t think I was hitting all that differently,” Criswell said. “I knew that I was scoring so that was all that I was focused on.”

    So her swing stayed the same until the summer before her freshman year of college, when the Illini coaches decided to try to help her change her swing. Criswell can’t remember exactly what they wanted her to change, but she said it involved the way her back moves through her swing. Either way, Criswell continued to score points with her swing the way it always had been, and eventually the coaches decided to leave her swing alone.

    “There’s a lot of things in the way she swings where I’ve never seen someone hit like that,” Hambly said. “It makes it hard to defend. It’s kind of like a pitcher that goes submarine style or three-quarter. She hits it from a different position you haven’t seen it before. It’s just different and it takes some time to adjust.”

    In her sophomore season, Criswell saw the court more, but her play was plagued with inconsistency. She finished the season with 73 kills in 45 sets and had a stretch of four matches where she had double digit kills. But Criswell’s production dropped off towards the end of the year.

    Her junior year brought more of the same ups and downs as Criswell became a focal point of the offense at times, but would disappear almost completely in others. She notched 21 kills against Penn State and 19 against Michigan, but at times Criswell would go into what Hambly called “dementor mode,” where her attitude would change after not capitalizing on a big kill attempt and she would suck the energy out of the team.

    “The only way I knew how to contribute was through my play,” Criswell said. “I wasn’t really a big talker. I would cheer. Obviously I always did that. I only really knew how to help the team through playing and getting kills. When I wasn’t doing that, I felt like I wasn’t doing my job as a teammate.”

    Criswell talked with her mother, who reminded her that to stay positive through the rough points in each season.

    “I just kept telling her to do her best and work as hard as you can and it will all pay off,” Jane Criswell said. 

    She also spoke with Hambly, who sternly reminded her that she needed to bring energy to the team even when she wasn’t playing well offensively.

    Criswell worked to be more emotionally invested in her teammates success and continued to improve the non-attacking areas of her game. She worked tirelessly over the summer before her junior year, learning how to pass from senior libero Jennifer Beltran and how to block.

    Her hard work paid off toward the end of her junior year as her play on the court improved dramatically and her energy level helped spur the Illini into the NCAA tournament.

    “As an athlete you’re not always going to be playing your best, but you have to find ways to compensate for that,” Criswell said. “If I’m not getting a lot of kills or a lot of blocks, I have to bring something else. If someone else is doing really great I need to bring my energy to the floor.”

    Criswell has carried over her consistency on the court to this season. She has already surpassed her career-highs in kills, digs and blocks with 262, 46 and 51, respectively, on the year. Her play has also helped the Illini achieve a No. 11 national ranking, a 23-7 record and likely a return to the NCAA tournament.

    Her consistent play may be partly due to the fact that Criswell has been bringing consistently positive energy to the court. No longer has Hambly had to pull Criswell from a match because of her attitude.

    “Early in her career, if she would get blocked a few times, she would disappear,” Hambly said. “This year, she’s fighting through some of that a little bit more, and that’s why we see a little more consistent play out of her.”

    Criswell is constantly high-fiving, joking with and cheering for her teammates, both on the court and off this season as she no realizes the difference a positive attitude can make on the Illini’s play.

    Whether it’s dancing in the huddle or sliding on her knees after a big kill, Criswell’s spark plug energy is almost always on display. 

    With the end of her career approaching and senior day around the corner Criswell knows that her career is coming to an end.

    She said that it hasn’t hit her yet and that it probably won’t until she moves out of the apartment she shares with fellow Illini Jocelynn Birks and Ali Stark. Criswell will be back on campus next year as she works towards a masters degree in event management, so her realization that volleyball is over probably won’t come just yet.

    “A friend of ours said, ‘It will really hit you in that last game when you realize it’s the last time you’ll ever see her in a uniform again,’” Jane Criswell said.

    Which is why Jane added that she will probably be more emotional than Morganne will be on senior night. 

    While senior night will come and go, the Illini will still play a few more games this season as the team should make the NCAA tournament. While its uncertain which match will be the final one of the season, one thing is for sure with Criswell as her career comes to a close. 

    She will be as energetic as always until the final whistle, because it’s just more fun that way. 

    “It’s fun for other people to feed off of,” Criswell said.

    Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @IlliniSportsGuy.