Megan Cooney ready for final run with Illini

Then+junior+Megan+Cooney+speaks+to+her+team+during+the+game+against+Marquette+at+Redbird+Arena+on+Sept.+14%2C+2019+in+Normal%2C+IL.+

Photo Courtesy of Andy Wenstrand / Fighting Illini Athletics

Then junior Megan Cooney speaks to her team during the game against Marquette at Redbird Arena on Sept. 14, 2019 in Normal, IL.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

Illinois senior Megan Cooney is a true veteran. The easy-going outside/opposite hitter has seen Illinois volleyball at some of its highest and lowest points over the past few years, but now she may face her toughest challenge: adapting to change within the program. 

Illinois volleyball has changed in quite a few ways. For one, many of the key players from the 2018 Final Four team have graduated, leaving Cooney as one of the last links from the team. To Cooney, it’s been difficult to see the faces around the program change. 

“That’s been hard for me, just as I’ve been getting older,” Cooney said. “I’ve been very close with the senior classes. All of them. It’s been sad for me to see them go.”

With her being one of the last connections to the Final Four roster, a lot of responsibility has fallen onto her to share her experiences with the younger players. 

“We want to work towards the same goal of getting back to the Final Four like we did in 2018,” Cooney said. “They haven’t had the 2018 season that we had, so it’s just trying to lead them and show them what it’s like to play in those situations and what it takes to get there.”

In Cooney’s case, she’s worked to show her teammates what it takes to make the Final Four through the effort she puts in in the gym as well as developing bonds with her teammates to help improve chemistry. When Cooney was an underclassman and Illinois made its Final Four run, she had teammates like Jordyn Poulter and Ali Bastianelli to look up to. Now that they’ve graduated, the baton has been passed to her in terms of leading the team. 

Cooney said she learned a lot from Poulter and Bastianelli in particular as they each lead in unique ways.

“Jordyn and Ali were great leaders,” Cooney said. “I think that they definitely portrayed (different styles). Jordyn was a little bit harder on us at practice where Ali was kind of the fun teammate, kind of bubbly. I think that both of their leadership styles on our team that season had an impact on our team and I definitely learned a lot from both of them.”

Cooney has worked to find a middle ground between the two players’ styles of leadership but leans a little bit more towards Bastianelli’s. According to Cooney, it’s because she places a high value on knowing all her teammates off the court. 

This past year, however, has presented unique challenges to Cooney. Being a senior made it much more difficult to relate to her younger teammates while COVID-19 restrictions have presented a roadblock in her being able to spend time with them. 

Cooney has attempted to bridge the gap between herself and her younger teammates by simply being more actively involved in spending time with them. Cooney said she puts in extra effort to get one-on-one time to build bonds with her younger teammates. Part of the reason Cooney has had to put in this extra effort this year is also because the team has been more limited in their time together due to COVID-19. 

“We’re used to coming in a month earlier than we did in the summer,” Cooney said. “We would normally get to introduce the freshmen a little bit more before we start practicing with the coaches and everything. We’d normally get to be together, practicing and working out together. I think working out together is a huge part to any team. Our summer workouts are tough, just pushing each other along really strengthens our team culture and everything.”

Over the summer, the volleyball team was split into two different groups for workouts, making it difficult for teammates that weren’t in the same group to get to know one another. This was unfortunate for Cooney, as her easy-going and focused personality sets a great example for the tone head coach Chris Tamas’ likes to set during his efficient practices. 

Another example of Cooney’s great ability to adapt is how she changed positions after her sophomore year. During her first two years in college, Cooney played opposite hitter. When the team needed her to switch to outside hitter, she got right to work. 

“Who knows where I’ll be this coming year,” Cooney said. “I practice both positions equally and I like them both. I definitely need more practice on the outside. I’ve been working hard with that for sure. Trying to improve my out-of-system game. That’s the biggest difference from outside and the opposite is just the amount of out of system balls that you get on the outside I’m just trying to improve my swings and range of swings that I can get from the outside hitter position.”

Having such a laid-back personality has allowed Cooney to contribute immensely to Illinois volleyball, but even she has limits in terms of what gets to her. One thing Cooney has struggled with is the possibility of the COVID-19 pandemic interfering with her senior season. 

“It was really tough for me,” Cooney said. “In the summer, we didn’t even know if we’d have a fall season or not. With all of the unknowns, I was just very nervous about everything. Now I’ve been able to put in the mindset that I can’t control anything that’s going on in the world right now. I can wear my mask, but that’s about all I can do. I have no control over if we have a season or not, so I’m just doing the best that I can personally. Ultimately, it’s out of my control, so I’m just going with the flow, rolling with the punches right now and crossing my fingers for that season.”

Cooney is known for her even-keeled personality, which has allowed her to take sudden changes such as the uncertainty of the season better than most. The chaotic nature of a pandemic has been stressful, but Cooney has not let her initial panic shake her permanently.

Ultimately, a lot of Cooney’s value to the team this year will be helping to serve as a bridge between the team’s past in its 2018 tournament run and its future in underclassmen on the roster. Cooney has already contributed to many of Illinois’ highest peaks, but she will hopefully get the chance to have one more chapter in her story. On a team that could have used more leadership last year, this season will be Cooney’s chance to prove what kind of leader she is.

@WesHollenberg

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