Illini of the Week: Cooney sets career high 20 kills, surpasses 1000 career kills

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Photo Courtesy of Andy Wenstrand/Fighting Illini Athletics

Senior Megan Cooney celebrates with her teammates after scoring a point during the match against Penn State on Feb. 5. Cooney is this week’s Illini of the Week.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

When asked to describe senior Megan Cooney, her teammates and coaches alike have echoed the same description: calm, experienced and insanely talented.

While the hitter shows out most weekends to the tune of dozens of kills, she maintains the same calm expression on her face regardless of circumstance. If she’s especially excited, you might be lucky enough to see her crack a smile. 

This past weekend was a special one for Cooney, setting a new career high with 20 kills and surpassing 1,000 career kills in a loss to Penn State on Friday. Despite having the historic night, Cooney remained deferential about the achievement.

“It’s a really exciting accomplishment honestly,” Cooney said. “A lot of it comes out to my teammates. I’m the third person to touch the ball. Bump, set, spike, so a lot of it goes out to my teammates.”

For Cooney, this season has been a bit of an adjustment. Head coach Chris Tamas changed the team’s offensive scheme, and as a result, Cooney has had to change the way she plays for the first time in years. 

“Meg’s been asked to step into a different role,” Tamas said. “Six-rotation role; normally, she’s used to playing three rotations. Only past three rotations last year. This year she’s stepping up all six rotations and stepping up for us both from a passing standpoint and an attacking standpoint.” 

With the shift in schemes this year, Cooney’s touches have gone through the roof. In the first few matches of the year, Cooney averaged 3.9 kills on 8.8 attempts per set. However, her workload has only increased since Ellie Holzman was declared out for the season with a torn ACL. Since then, Cooney is averaging 4.15 assists on 11.9 attempts per set. 

Even with so many touches, Cooney has remained steady about her role this season.

“I was prepared to step into a bigger role this year,” Cooney said. “I think having that preparation and that long offseason has prepared me to have that many attempts and feel good about it.”

Along with her large role as a player on the court, leadership has become an additional factor for Cooney the past couple of years. According to senior Kylie Bruder, a big tool for Cooney has been just how seasoned she is. She’s played in almost every match since the beginning of her freshman year, including playing a role on the 2018 Final Four team, so no stage is too big for her.

This year, whenever the Illini have found themselves in a close set against a big opponent, everyone looks to Cooney. 

“She’s been in all those tough, tight moments,” Bruder said. “Like we had a few this weekend against Penn State when it’s a tie game 25-all. I think she has experience in those moments, and she brings a sort of confidence to that that maybe not a lot of the more inexperienced players have.”

Off the court, Cooney keeps it mostly low-key. According to Bruder, an average weekend for her and Cooney includes activities like getting food from Fiesta Cafe and hanging out with their teammates. While part of that helps keep the focus on volleyball, it also makes her much more accessible to her teammates, which is especially important with Illinois’ younger roster this year. 

While Cooney likes to give most of the credit to her teammates, the Illini will need to lean heavily on her if they are to succeed this season due to Holzman’s injury. With her seeing so many attempts, it’s possible for her to end up in some of the Illinois record books by the end of the year — number 20 on the all-time kills list is 1,109. Cooney will easily pass that given her current pace. 

“Meg’s an awesome teammate to play with,” Bruder said. “She definitely gives you a big window to set the ball into. I think she showed this weekend that she’s a great blocker. Other than her playing ability, she’s a really good leader. She’s a great person to have on the court. I think she’s a calming presence, and everyone loves to play with her.”

@WesHollenberg

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