Illini of the Week September 30: Jordyn Poulter

By Daniel Dexter

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.

For Illinois volleyball head coach Kevin Hambly, watching setter Jordyn Poulter play is like seeing a painting by Monet — indescribably better than everyone else.

Her talent caught Hambly’s eye at a volleyball camp when the now-freshman was just 12 years old. He knew right then that she was destined to play the sport in college.

“When I look at Monet and I look at another painting, I know Monet’s are better.” Hambly said. “I don’t know why they are better … When you look at 12-year-olds out there playing and none of them (are) really good at volleyball, and you watch her and go, ‘that’s a Monet right there.’ There is something different about her that’s different than everybody else.”

Poulter was important in the Illini’s two weekend sweeps of Big Ten rivals. Poulter went off for 34 assists and four digs against Maryland and followed it up with a 40 assist and seven dig effort in the takedown of Rutgers. For her stellar play, the Aurora, Colorado, native was awarded Big Ten Setter and Freshman of the Week honors.

It was Poulter’s second time being named the conference’s top freshman of the week — the first came after her very first weekend of play. But Poulter said there has been a definite change in the five weeks since her Illinois volleyball debut.

“I think I’m more relaxed on the court,” Poulter said. “It feels a little bit more natural than it did at first (at Stuff Huff). The team chemistry is building every game.”

The setter position commands respect from teammates because the setter runs the entire offense. Poulter embraced the pressure and expectations that come with being a starting setter and knows she can always turn to the former two-year starting setter Alexis Viliunas.

Poulter said she looked to Viliunas for advice when practices first started, and Viliunas was more than happy to assist the newcomer learning the drills and Hambly’s expectations for the team.

“She can definitely give her own experience to me and tell me what she went through,” Poulter said. “She is always cheering me on from the sidelines. Every time I do something I can hear her screaming from the sidelines. It’s awesome to know that she has my back, and I have hers.”

It wasn’t an easy decision for Hambly and his staff to start Poulter over the veteran Viliunas. But as practice started and Poulter’s talents became more apparent, it was clear to him that she was the right choice for the role.

Still, he was unsure how that decision would affect the relationship between the Poulter and Vilinunas. Fortunately for Hambly and the team, any qualms were quickly calmed after seeing the two laughing with each other on the sidelines after the first game against Louisville. He said the pair’s dynamic has made the team better as a result because Poulter never has to worry about what Viliunas is thinking.

Poulter’s support has helped her lead Illinois to a No. 7 ranking, with losses only to No. 8 Stanford and No. 6 Arizona State. She is averaging 11.1 assists per set this season, the highest by any freshman in the country.

The Illini are going to need Poulter at her best as they pursue their ultimate goal of being the last team standing in December. Despite Big Ten play starting, Hambly has no plans of changing up his coaching style. He thinks Poulter still has a long way to go.

“Winning will take care of itself when we are shooting for being a great team,” Hambly said. “We’re holding her to the same expectations against Rutgers as we are against Wisconsin and against Minnesota this week. We just want Jordyn to be the best she can be, so we’re going to keep pushing for that.”