Illinois volleyball fell short of championship expectations

By Annabeth Carlson

The Illinois volleyball team came into the 2015 season with championship expectations but fell short in the Sweet Sixteen.

Head coach Kevin Hambly’s squad finished the season with a 21-13 overall record but a 10-10 Big Ten record that resulted in a seventh-place regular season finish in conference play. It was a season of ups and downs for the Illini, who started the season ranked No. 8 in the country.

After an impressive 9-2 start in non-conference play, Illinois struggled to get its footing when Big Ten play began. The team went on a four-game losing streak with losses against Big Ten perennial powerhouses, Penn State and Minnesota.

The team recovered its footing midway through the season and went on a five-game win streak that put it back in contention for a place in the NCAA tournament.

Illinois played its first two rounds in Louisville, Kentucky, against Southern Illinois and Louisville. The Illini made quick work of both teams to earn a spot in the regional semifinals against Minnesota.

Unfortunately for the Illini, they couldn’t overcome the Gophers’ onslaught, losing in straight sets. Minnesota would go on to make it to the Final Four before losing to eventual runner-up Texas.

“I think we were close to being a very good team,” Hambly said of Illinois’ season. “We never got over the hump and we lost a lot of tight sets.”

Illinois was led by senior outside hitter Jocelynn Birks, who became the Illini’s all-time kills leader this season. She led the team with 435 kills on the season, which included a season-high 26 kills against Louisville in the first round of the national tournament.

“I couldn’t have done it without my teammates,” Birks said. “(Alexis Viliunas) has done a great job the past three years of getting me the ball and working with me. (Jordyn Poulter) has come in and also has worked really hard to learn how to set me because apparently it’s difficult. I couldn’t do it without them.”

Hambly will add six new players to the team next season as it looks to replace the firepower that Birks provided throughout her career at Illinois.

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