Illini middle blockers, outside hitters feature veterans, newcomers for 2021 season

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Photo Courtesy of Andy Wenstrand/Fighting Illini Athletics

Senior Megan Cooney celebrates with Rylee Hinton during the game against Indiana March 27. Illinois volleyball will consist of star newcomers and well seasoned veterans for the upcoming season.

By Enji Erdenekhuyag, Staff Writer

On account of its young roster and the NCAA’s eligibility extension, Illinois will see a familiar cast of faces throughout the season, with the exception of a few new additions who surely will capture their spot in the limelight. 

From Fairway, Kansas, 6-foot-3 freshman Sarah Bingham brings versatility as a middle blocker and outside hitter. In 2020, PrepDig.com ranked Bingham as the No. 3 player in Kansas, and she also was featured on Under Armour’s All-America Watch List. The work Bingham put in to earn those accolades speaks for itself, as she led the Kansas Volleyball Association’s Class 6A kills per set at 5.00 and has amassed over 915 career kills. 

Redshirt freshman Maddie Whittington will be looking to see some action this year as well. Initially, Whittington was recruited as a middle blocker but has transitioned to play as an opposite hitter. 

A healthy Ellie Holzman is expected to make her return to Illinois volleyball as a redshirt sophomore. Holzman, middle blocker and outside hitter, redshirted in 2019 because of a preseason stress fracture in her leg and then played in 13 sets during the 2020-2021 season before suffering a season-ending ACL tear on Jan. 30. Though her playing time was brief, her impact was impressionable; she tallied 35 kills on a .187 hitting percentage, 18 digs, four blocks and three aces. 

Holzman is a four-time Division I Louisiana state champion with Mount Carmel Academy, a three-time Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year and was the 2018-19 Gatorade National Volleyball Player of the Year. Her long-awaited comeback will surely be one to watch. 

Illinois also will see plenty of rotations from juniors Kennedy Collins, Rylee Hinton and Kyla Swanson. Collins is the Illini’s go-to middle blocker, as she registered playing time in all 18 matches last season, posting 57 total blocks and 128 kills on a .265 hitting percentage. Last year, Champaign’s very own Hinton led the team in blocks with 75, and Swanson notched 16. On Jan. 25, Hinton captured her first Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors for aiding Illinois to consecutive wins against Iowa.

As for outside hitters, Illinois appears to be stacked. Sophomore Raina Terry took on a significant role as a freshman last year. She started 17 out of the 18 matches she played in and led the team with the most kills, locking in 210. This year, expect much of the same action from the former Big Ten Freshman of the Week, just more developed and expanded. 

After opting in for the extended eligibility, Megan Cooney is returning for her fifth season as a graduate student. The outsider and opposite hitter’s retention is a huge win for the Illini. Cooney tailed Terry in most kills at 205 and was honored to the All-Big Ten Second Team last season. 

Though Cooney returned, graduate Emily Hollowell decided to continue her volleyball career at Ball State University. As an Illini, Hollowell played in 31 sets in 11 matches and averaged 1.26 kills per set. 

With Hollowell’s departure, Illinois welcomed junior Jessica Nunge, a transfer from Florida State. There, Nunge totaled 79 kills on a .177 hitting percentage, on top of 97 digs, 32 blocks and 12 aces. No doubt, she will be an offensive and defensive asset for the Illini.

The two remaining hitters on the roster are redshirt junior Bruna Vrankovic and redshirt freshman Sophie Gregus. Last season, Vrankovic had a hot hand, posting double-digit kills in four consecutive matches, and posted a career-high 23 kills April 3. She averaged 127 kills on a .141 hitting percentage. 

Gregus, who did not play last season, was the 2021 Big Ten Sportsmanship Honoree. During her senior year at Benet Academy, where she led her team to the state championship, Gregus captured 260 kills, 86 digs, 38 blocks, 33 aces and 11 assists. It will be interesting to see how her role shifts this season as Illinois will look to transition the 6-foot-1 hitter into a defensive specialist or libero.

 

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