Illini of the Week Oct. 25: Michelle Strizak

By Jacob Diaz, Staff Writer

As a high school All-American, senior outside hitter Michelle Strizak has been a gifted volleyball player for a long time.

Despite being a six-rotation starter through high school, the college game was a major step up for her.

“One of my greatest strengths was seeing the ball, but the college game was so much different,” Strizak said.

Luckily for her, when she arrived, the Illini didn’t need her to be a starter because they already had Jocelynn Birks at that position. This gave head coach Kevin Hambly time to make adjustments to Strizak’s game before he had to play her every day.

“She’s always been a good jumper, but we’ve had to change everything about her arm swing, everything about her approach,” Hambly said. “She wasn’t a (good enough) six-rotation player, and she needed to learn how to become that. She’s changed in every way that you could possibly change.”

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While Strizak will be remembered mostly as an offensive weapon for the Illini, her defensive achievements shouldn’t be ignored.

Strizak recorded a career-high 19 digs against Purdue on Saturday, bettering her previous high of nine.

In her second year as a regular for the Illini, Strizak’s digs per set and blocks per set have both increased.

“She’s obviously improved over the last few years (defensively),” Hambly said. “Last year she really struggled at defense. She’s gotten a lot better. We took her out of middle-back and put her in right-back and she really thrived there.”

This is Strizak’s last chance to make it past the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament, but unlike some other players, Strizak hasn’t set any personal goals for her senior year.

Leadership has been an important quality for Strizak and her fellow seniors, as the team features a large class of freshmen to supplement the returning players. That youth was a hindrance for the Illini earlier in the season, as the team started 2-4.

“We had a little bit of a rough beginning as a team, but we were pretty young,” Strizak said. “And honestly the improvements we’ve made as a team have been way more than I’ve ever experienced in my four years here.”

The Illini have only lost three games since that opening skid and have improved in all areas of the game. If they continue to improve, this squad might finally move past the Sweet Sixteen and earn a trip that, for Strizak, would almost be a trip home.

“I know that (the NCAA Final Four) is in Columbus, which is really close to where I’m from, so I have a lot of family that are always telling me, ‘You need to be in Columbus!’ But for now we just have to stay in the moment,” Strizak said.

However, if the Cincinnati-native does make the trip to nearby Columbus, it won’t be a championship trophy that she is seeking most.

“Well I always wanted the (championship) hat,” Strizak said. “That’s what I see. The hats are so cool!”

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