Illinois volleyball’s 2022 wildcard: Kayla Burbage the ‘unknown’

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Photo courtesy of @IlliniVBall on twitter

New Illini Opposite/outside hitter Kayla Burbage bumps the ball during practice. Coach Tamas opens up on choice to induct University of Missouri transfer Kayla Burbage to the Illini family.

By Drew Friberg, Sports Editor

Big Ten volleyball tops the preseason American Volleyball Coaches Association rankings yet again, boasting a national high seven teams ranked in the top 25 heading into the 2022 season. 

Reigning national champions Wisconsin sits at third, while Nebraska is polled as the number one team in the nation. Among these two are fellow Big Ten members No. 5 Minnesota, No. 7 Ohio State, No. 13 Purdue, No. 17 Illinois and No. 20 Penn State.

While a lot is known about the majority of the Big Ten’s lineups, the Illini go into this season as a wildcard. With All-American opposite Megan Cooney using her last year of eligibility in 2021, the Illini star can no longer compete in 2022, leaving a huge hole in the lineup going into the season.

Filling the gap left by someone like Cooney is no easy feat, but head coach Chris Tamas may have found a direct replacement in sophomore transfer Kayla Burbage.

Burbage took her Mizzou team by storm in her freshman year, playing in 24 of the team’s 28 matches, led her team in blocks with 87 total and ranked third in kills with 211. Burbage’s freshman season was impressive, and caught the eye of Tamas for a second time, as he missed out on recruiting her in 2020.

“I just saw a lot of good things on film, and we had some knowledge of her beforehand,” Tamas said. “In the previous recruiting cycle we had talked to her, so she ended up being a good fit.”

Although Tamas was impressed greatly by Burbage’s play at Mizzou, she played the majority of her sets at middle blocker, a position that the Illini have filled with seniors Kennedy Collins, Kyla Swanson and Rylee Hinton. Tamas intends to make Burbage an opposite in the wake of Cooney’s departure. When looking for a replacement, Tamas liked what he saw from Burbage.

“We had a need for the position, and we were looking for someone who could come in and fulfill a former All-American’s role, or at least attempt to,” Tamas said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. I knew that she was big and physical, had a nice arm, she played a lot of middle in her last stop, but we were looking for specifically an opposite.”

With a big season ahead and large shoes to fill, Burbage isn’t at all fazed by the expectations. Being put into uncomfortable situations is something that she thinks makes herself and the team better overall.

“(My teammates) are really pushing me to be uncomfortable and make changes, which will help me in the long run,” Burbage said. “We have a really special group of girls here and I think everybody thrives when they’re in a healthy environment, and I think everyone is willing to be uncomfortable to make everyone else better.”

With a lot of question marks surrounding Burbage and the Illini’s future as a real contender in the nation’s premier volleyball conference, only time will tell if Burbage as an opposite is a good move this season. Tamas remains confident in his new signing’s abilities, however, and is using that as an advantage over opposition. With no scouting report on Burbage as an opposite, she is a complete wildcard for teams ahead of the season.

“I think she’s a little bit of an unknown for people right off the bat,” Tamas said. “That’s exciting.”

 

@DrewFriberg9

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