Illini defensive specialists prepare for expanded role


Jeffrey Hsu

Junior Taylor Kuper bumps the ball during the game against Michigan on Nov. 1, 2019.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

Over the past offseason for Illinois volleyball, the only constant for the team has been change. Five starters have departed, the traditional fall season was postponed to spring and the coaching staff dealt assistant coach Alfred Reft’s departure.

That change has trickled down to the defensive specialist position, as the group has lost three of its five players from last season. The shift from five defensive specialists to only two can’t be understated, as the Illini haven’t fielded any less than five on their team since 2013.

Taylor Kuper and Alyssa Eske, the two remaining defensive specialists on the roster, have maintained optimism about the team’s situation at the position.

Among the changes, the roster is now without their primary libero from last year, Morgan O’Brien. The opening has created a bit of a position battle for it between Kuper and Eske during practices.

”There is no definite answer as to who’s libero yet, but we are neck-and-neck,” Eske said. “I think it’s great because I love competition. We have a healthy competitive relationship with one another, so we push each other to be great every day. That’s where we stand is me and her competing for the libero spot. Either way, whoever gets it, we’ll both play a major role on the team defensively.”

As far as the competition goes, Kuper certainly holds the experience advantage as she played in all 30 matches last season including eight starts. Eske was primarily in a backup role last season, seeing little time on the court in matches. However, it may truly be a tossup if head coach Chris Tamas still hasn’t made a decision this close to the season.

According to Eske, the team’s libero might not be known until the first match. But regardless of who gets to play libero, Eske seems confident that her talent could lead towards a breakout campaign this season with the additional playing time available.

“Part of my game that I bring to the court is my defense,” said Eske. “I think it’s one of the strong suits. That is because I’ve played beach (volleyball) since I was little. Something about beach volleyball is that it’s only two people, so you need to be good on defense. You need to have a high IQ. I think that plays into the indoor role where I just read and react. I get into my position that I need to be on the court, and once the hitter hits, I react to the ball wherever it is on the court. That fast-twitch movement that we have is very important.”

Eske mentioned her biggest recent improvement has come in her serve-receive game, something she feels was weaker in the past. She attributes a lot of the progress to Illinois running serve-receive drills every day since they’ve begun two-a-day practices in mid-December.

Kuper also feels strongly about her ability to contribute with consistency with a never-say-die mindset being key qualities of her game.

“Consistency (is important) because you are the first touch, whether that’s serve-receive or defense,” Kuper said. “You want to get that ball high in the air, playable so we can run a good offense and make the setters and hitters lives a little easier. Consistency, but also just having a mindset that no balls can hit the floor around you. You’re going to do whatever it takes to get the ball up and get it playable.”

Another impactful change to Illinois’ roster has been the addition of assistant coach Eli Sharping to the coaching staff.

“I think he’s been a great addition defense and serve-receive wise,” Eske said. “Compared to Alfred, he brings in different techniques. His skills and IQ of the game is amazing. He’s able to feed that off onto us. He’s always a positive person. I like a positive coach. He doesn’t necessarily get mad at us when we make a mistake. He’s like, ‘OK, let’s take a look at the film, see what you did wrong and what we can fix about it.’ That’s something he takes pride in is looking back at film and seeing what we can fix to take the next step in our game. I think he’s brought so much to the team and I’m excited to see what us defenders can do during the season.”

While the changing faces on the roster might be the flashier difference in this year’s team, Sharping’s addition to the coaching staff may have a greater impact in the coming years with such a direct role in developing players. According to Kuper, Sharping is the primary coach leading the serve-receive drills for the defensive specialists, something they do in practice daily.

Heading into the season, Kuper has described the Illini’s defensive specialists as being a feisty group. Despite the losses in numbers, Kuper argued that the title of defensive specialist is just a label, leaving plenty of room for her other teammates to step up on defense too.

With the season right around the corner, time will tell if Illinois can be successful with just two defensive specialists.



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