‘Next man up’ mentality gives Illini success

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Sydney Laput

Setter Brooke Mosher blocks Maryland’s attempt to score by the net on Sept. 23 BIG Ten match. Mosher performed in her first BIG Ten matches and had 14 kills against Maryland.

By Drew Friberg, Sports Editor

113 kills and 15 aces in 10 matches is a solid start for a Big Ten outside hitter. Heading into the conference season, senior outside hitter Jessica Nunge was ready to play and expand upon her impressive statline, with matches against Maryland and Northwestern ahead to open up her Big Ten account in her second season with Illinois.

“I feel almost like a veteran now, even though I transferred here,” Nunge said just three days before Illinois’ match against Maryland. “It’s gonna be a hard season, it’s gonna be a great season. It’s going to be so much fun to play.”

That Friday, just a few hours before first serve in Illinois’ Big Ten season, disaster struck. Nunge went down with an injury, forcing her to be ruled out of the first two weekends of Big Ten play, with no ETA on a return.

However, even with such a huge piece to the Illini’s attacking puzzle ruled out, the team rose to the occasion, taking down its first two opponents and going 2-0 on the weekend. No matter who it was that was ruled out, Illinois had a plan in place.

“In the moment, (the injury) was shocking, and it was scary,” redshirt senior setter Diana Brown said. “You just feel kind of guilty and sad for her. But honestly, we were just like, ‘Alright, next man up.’”

The “next man up” for Illinois in this case was redshirt freshman setter Brooke Mosher, who had never played a Big Ten match before. Despite this, she slotted right in at outside hitter in Nunge’s absence.

Having no collegiate hitting experience and just hours ahead of a match against one of the best middle blockers in the nation in Rainelle Jones, who led the NCAA in blocks per set last season (1.73), Mosher’s confidence was that of an experienced Big Ten hitter.

“Brooke looked me straight in the eyes and she was like, ‘I’m ready,’” Brown said. “What better do you want as a setter?”

The hitting performance that followed was that of a veteran. Mosher put up a career high 14 kills against Maryland, while leading the Illini in hitting percentage with .346%. She had a much more tame second match of the weekend against Northwestern, putting up just five kills, but this still would have been her career high if not for Friday’s match. 

Illinois head coach Chris Tamas was impressed with Mosher’s performances, but he wasn’t surprised. He knew what Mosher was capable of when he was recruiting her.

“Brooke stepped in and played huge the entire weekend,” Tamas said. “She played everything in high school, so we threw her back out there and let her do her thing.”

Mosher’s huge performances against Northwestern and Maryland helped solidify her starting position as the team entered week two of Big Ten play against No. 5 Purdue and No. 8 defending national champion Wisconsin. 

Mosher’s week two picked up where she left off in week one, with 13 kills and a block against Purdue, and a match-high 21 against Wisconsin. Despite losing both in five sets, she continued to lead the way for her team in just her third and fourth match as a hitter, but this time against top-10 opposition.

In addition to Mosher’s presence in the lineup during conference, senior middle blocker Rylee Hinton had a brief stint in the lineup at the start of the season following an injury to first choice senior middle blocker Kennedy Collins in the team’s season opener against No.14 Georgia Tech. Illinois won its second match of the season over Ole Miss, where Hinton started due to the absence of Collins.

Dealing with injuries like this is normal in any program, but transitions usually aren’t as seamless as Mosher and Hinton’s. Playing through tough seasons and Tamas drilling versatility into his lineup has prepared Illinois for its injury-riddled start.

“I think that’s something we really learned during the COVID-19 season: Just always be ready,” Hinton said. “It’s always next man up, and I learned that in my time here in general. You never know what’s going to happen between injuries, or someone might match up better with an opponent. So, just always be ready to go.”

Illinois’ season so far has characterized the “next man up” mentality Tamas pushes onto his lineup. With a tough road ahead to the postseason and at least three top-10 teams left to play, sticking to the plan Tamas prepares for his team is key, no matter who is on the floor.

“It happened gameday, in the morning practice, so you just have to make a switch. I just reminded (the team) that one of our mantras is just ‘keep moving forward.’”

 

@DrewFriberg9

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