Super Kuper: First-Team All-Big Ten selection reflects on new responsibilities, challenges

Junior+Taylor+Kuper+dives+for+the+ball+at+a+match+against+Purdue+in+West+Lafayette%2C+Indiana+April+2.+Kuper+is+a+force+to+be+reckoned+with+after+overcoming+the+struggle+of+finding+her+role+in+the+first+half+of+the+season.

Photo Courtesy of Andy Wenstrand/Fighting Illini Athletics

Junior Taylor Kuper dives for the ball at a match against Purdue in West Lafayette, Indiana April 2. Kuper is a force to be reckoned with after overcoming the struggle of finding her role in the first half of the season.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

The scariest part of playing against Illinois might be the sight of libero Taylor Kuper walking up to the service line. With her incredibly high level of expert spontaneity, opponents often find themselves on the wrong end of a guessing game as to where she might put the ball. While most players have one or two good serves that often become predictable, Kuper has five unique serves she’s mastered, leaving her with a skill set akin to an elite pitcher in baseball. 

Kuper credits her serving gift to her time as a hitter in high school. 

“I used to be a hitter, but I’m very short,” Kuper said. “If I was going to play at the highest level, hitting was not going to be an option. I grew up hitting different shots and scoring different ways. When you convert to defense, you can only take those shots away from other people. When I’m behind the line, that’s (the only time) when I have control of the ball. If I want to drop a serve out, that’s like if I want to take an off-speed as a hitter.”

This season alone, she scored a career-high 40 aces and averaged 0.56 aces per set, both marks near the top of the Big Ten. For her contributions at the service line, along with excellent defensive numbers, Kuper received a First-Team All-Big Ten nod this season, the first such accolade of her career. 

But the path to being a stalwart of the Illinois defense wasn’t an easy one.

“For most (defensive specialists) or liberos, the recruiting process is not the prettiest,” Kuper said. “The hitters usually go first. Those are the players that coaches want to lock up before another coach does. That’s not always the case, but for me, I always (saw) all my setter friends and all my (hitter) friends getting recruited and committing while I was still in phase one of talking with certain schools. It can be a hit to your confidence, so I just tried to remain positive throughout it all.” 

For Kuper, the arduous process of recruitment ended with a commitment to Illinois in 2017 as one of the first players head coach Chris Tamas recruited when he joined the program. 

“When I worked at Nebraska, she came to camp,” Tamas said. “The head coach at Nebraska wanted to go a different direction, so Taylor was still available when I got the job here at Illinois. The first weekend I got to go out, she was playing at a tournament in Denver, and I saw how much she improved from the time I saw her at that camp to the time I saw her in that moment back in March 2017. A kid that improves that much on her own merit deserves to get a shot here in a Big Ten program, so I brought her on campus and did a visit with her. She said she wanted to challenge herself at the highest level and would love to be an Illini, and since then she’s improved every year.”

Since then, she’s been a steady starter for the Illini. She spent her first two years as a defensive specialist, and this year won the libero spot in practice. Though it was a recognition of her skill as a player, it came with some growing pains and added expectations in terms of leadership.

“I think becoming our libero, she’s had to step into this leadership role,” said teammate Megan Cooney. “She’s come around figuring out what the best thing to say is in the right moment. It can be tricky because people can get pretty sensitive in difficult situations. She was a great leader the last half of the season. The first half she was trying to shape her leadership skills and find what works best for her, and she really succeeded at that.”

Tamas also cited a pretty big turnaround for Kuper around the midway point of the season, as the libero has significant added responsibility as not only being the team’s best back-row defender, but also leading the defense as a whole. With her role as libero and a leader on the team finally crystallized, Kuper will get the chance to spend a full season next year as a seasoned veteran in her role. 

“All I can think about is how I wish we were still playing,” Kuper said when asked about her First-Team All-Big Ten award. “It feels bad because my teammates went through the same things with COVID-19 this year; it sucked. I wish there was a way that everyone got the recognition because they all deserve it. I mean, it’s nice and I appreciate the recognition, but I want them to be recognized as well.”

Nowadays, Kuper has pulled off a magnificent role-reversal from being an underappreciated high school player to one of the elite defenders in the Big Ten. As she remains deferential about the accolades, Kuper has continued to feed into Illinois’ chemistry they worked hard to cultivate this season. With players like Kuper on the roster, the Illini just might have a chance to turn their season-ending upset over No. 8 Purdue into more than just a fluke.

 

@WesHollenberg

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