Illini of the Week September 15: Michelle Strizak

By Eli Schwadron

Editor’s Note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down each week and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

Outside hitter Michelle Strizak led the No. 6 Illinois volleyball team with 38 kills this weekend in a clean sweep of No. 24 Kentucky, South Dakota State and Wichita State at the Shocker Classic tournament. The junior has 97 kills (she had 79 all of last season) and a .322 hitting percentage through eight matches, and she’s been an integral part of Illinois’ 7-1 start. Strizak is on a roll. But her commitment to volleyball hasn’t always been as strong as it is now.

“I grew up around volleyball — my whole family plays,” she said. “When I was younger, I decided I wanted to be different from everybody else. I wanted to play soccer, and that drove everybody in my family crazy.”

Before she won the Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year award as a standout at Mount Notre Dame High School in Cincinnati, and long before starting at Illinois, Strizak had ambitions of some day playing college soccer. She said two things changed her mind: first, she realized she was not really built for soccer — a little too tall and a little too uncoordinated — and second, she began to fall in love with volleyball, starting when she was 12.

Strizak’s volleyball lineage is strong. Her mother played at Xavier University, her sister played at Maryland, and her cousin is an All-American at University of Dayton, so it’s no surprise Strizak’s game seems to come so naturally. She possesses a vertical leap rivaling an NBA player’s, which poses a nightmarish matchup problem for opposing Big Ten teams.

Strizak credits her parents for helping her develop that bounce at a young age.

“When I was little, my parents used to make me try to touch the doorway and then try to palm the doorway, and then try to touch the ceiling and palm the ceiling,” she said. She went on to say her jumping ability is partly innate, but she’s been working hard the past couple years to take it to another level.

Head coach Kevin Hambly, who has taken notice of Strizak’s work ethic, said she spent all spring and summer grinding to become a more efficient attacker, add power to her game and figure out ways to score — and it’s paid off. Hambly also attributed Strizak’s improvements to the competitive nature that exists between Strizak and fellow junior outside hitter Katie Roustio in practice on a daily basis.

“I think part of it’s because Katie is right on her heels pushing her. That relationship is really cool,” Hambly said.

He said Strizak and Roustio are “buddies,” so there are no hard feelings, and they’re open about how they’re neck-and-neck on the depth chart.

“The easy part is they don’t make the decision who’s going to play — I make that decision, so they can say, ‘Hey, Kevin’s a jerk’ as opposed to, ‘Hey, you’re not good,’” Hambly said.

Though Strizak led the team in kills over the weekend, Katie Stadick took home tournament MVP thanks to her consistent play. Through three matches, the junior middle blocker racked up 14 blocks and 28 kills to go with a .417 hitting percentage. Stadick said she was honored to win MVP but had to give props to her teammates, especially Strizak.

“(Strizak) is always contributing on the floor,” Stadick said. “She’s got hops, and she’s really smart with hitting different shots … she just brings a certain level of intensity and fire to every game.”

Strizak will look to use that fire going forward, especially with Big Ten play looming.

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