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From court to sidelines

Illinois%27+Katie+Roustio+gets+ready+to+spike+the+ball+during+the+match+against+Wisconsin+at+Huff+Hall+on+Wednesday%2C+Nov.+18%2C+2015.+Illinois+lost+3-2.
Illinois' Katie Roustio gets ready to spike the ball during the match against Wisconsin at Huff Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015. Illinois lost 3-2.

Illinois' Katie Roustio gets ready to spike the ball during the match against Wisconsin at Huff Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015. Illinois lost 3-2.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois' Katie Roustio gets ready to spike the ball during the match against Wisconsin at Huff Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015. Illinois lost 3-2.

By Jacob Diaz, Staff writer

When Katie Roustio debuted for the Illinois volleyball team in 2013, she was a true freshman who could often be seen at the end of the Illini bench.

Roustio, an outside hitter, only played three matches as a freshman, not even recording a kill until her sophomore season.

But by her junior year, Roustio was one of the mainstays of the team, playing in 19 matches and racking up 106 kills over the season, all while nursing an injury that was worse than she initially thought.

“I remember feeling it in a Nebraska game in the fall,” Roustio said. “I was on my way down from the block and something was off, but it wasn’t terrible pain.”

The pain got worse throughout the season, until she finally got the injury checked in the spring to discover she had a torn meniscus in her knee and needed surgery.

However, because she caught it early enough in the off-season, she was ready to go again in time for her final season.

“I was really looking forward to being a senior on the court and leading our team,” Roustio said. “Every team has those senior leaders, and I was excited to be one of them.”

Known by her friends as Krou, Roustio started the season in a limited role, coming off the bench during sets for a different look on offense. She recorded three kills in her first match against Xavier. She also made brief appearances against Stanford and Colorado before she wound up in a familiar place: the doctor’s office.

The surgically-repaired knee was acting up again, and a concerned Roustio had it checked out before it got any worse. Little did she know, the damage was already done.

Roustio had re-torn her meniscus, although this time she said it wasn’t on a specific play, instead it was likely from the stress of playing on it and not taking her time with recovery and rehab.

The news didn’t get better from there. Because the injury happened during the season, Roustio’s playing days were over.

“Then once I got the news that it was torn, and I wouldn’t be able to play anymore, it was shocking,” Roustio said. “It was eye-opening.”

The news of Roustio’s injury was hard news to take, not only for her, but for the entire team.

But Roustio was well aware of that, and she didn’t want her situation to distract her teammates from the task at hand.

“I definitely kept a strong face for them,” Roustio said. “I didn’t want them to see how much I was hurting, and I didn’t want it to affect our team. I wanted our team to think, ‘where can we go from here?’ Instead of dwelling on, ‘Oh, we need Krou in this situation.’”

Roustio’s teammates saw the face she put on for them and admired her strength in doing so.

“I thought she dealt with it with a lot of grace and a lot of composure,” senior Michelle Strizak said. “I can’t imagine how hard that was, to not end your career on your terms. Seeing her only want the best for us is really amazing.”

Strizak took her teammate’s situation and used it as her own motivation to make sure she ends her career on her terms, unlike her teammate who could not.

Roustio said that she was glad that Strizak took that approach because Strizak has the opportunity to control how well she does and how hard she practices this season.

Roustio has long since come to terms with the fact that she won’t have that chance, but in a way, she envies her teammates’ opportunities, and the fact that they can see the end of their careers coming a mile ahead. She wishes that the end to her career hadn’t been so shockingly abrupt.

But as much as she tried to hide it, her teammates knew that Roustio was in pain. Senior Danielle Davis has been Roustio’s roommate since summer training before their freshman year.

“I know it’s been super tough for her to have a career-ending injury, but she’s one of those people that just thrives in the environment that she’s put in,” Davis said. “She’s so tough. She just looks at the glass half-full. She was hurting really bad, and she knew that if she got surgery that she was done. She took it way better than I think I would have taken it.”

The injury left Roustio at a crossroad. She couldn’t keep playing, but she still wanted to help her team get through the season and be that senior leader she had planned on being.

Luckily for her, head coach Kevin Hambly was ready with a solution.

He offered Roustio the role of assistant coach for the rest of the season. Much of what she did would remain the same. She’d travel with the team, help run drills in practice and offer her advice to her teammates. But instead of going out on the court and playing, she would work with the other outside hitters to try to make them better.

It was an opportunity that Roustio jumped at.

“I wanted to help in any way I could, and when Kevin offered me the student assistant coach (position), I immediately said yes,” Roustio said. “I don’t know how anyone could say no to that. I had been working with this team all spring and all summer, and I knew that we were in it together, even if it meant I couldn’t play anymore.”

For Roustio, her new role gave her the chance to reach her goal of being a senior leader. Her teammates can still come to her for advice about anything, knowing that even though she is technically a coach, Roustio has always been one of them.

And so, on Oct. 7, Roustio’s new position was officially announced, formally ending her playing career.

“One of the biggest things about this position is I get to help the other outsides,” Roustio said. “Like during matches, I’m looking for their open shots, and they’ll come to me if they have questions about a player or where their tendencies are. There are certain aspects of the game that I didn’t see before.”

For Hambly, the decision to offer the role to Roustio was a no-brainer.

“I just said, ‘let’s find value in what you’re doing here still,’” Hambly said. “She’s still a player in a lot of ways; I just wanted her to be more serious about offering advice to the other players, the younger players or even the older players, and I think she’s done a nice job.”

The solution to Roustio’s situation also solved another problem for Hambly. The Illini can only travel with 16 players, but with Roustio on the bench, the roster clocked in at 17. But because she is now a coach, Hambly can bring freshman Kendal Kavanaugh, previously the odd-woman out, on team road trips.

However, both Hambly and Roustio agree that while her official label now reads “coach,” Roustio still feels more like a player. Her teammates seem to share that feeling.

“It’s cool, she gets to help the staff with where hitters are hitting and stuff, but it really feels no different,” Davis said. “It feels like everybody, coaches included, we’re all just one big family.”

The injury that at first shrouded the future for Roustio has now put her on a clear path forward, albeit not the one she initially imagined.

Not having to focus as intensely about her own on-the-court performance has allowed her more time to focus on the other aspects of her life, especially the academic side of college. Roustio will graduate early, with a degree in media studies and a minor in communications.

Roustio already has a job lined up for after she graduates.

But first, there are still a few precious weeks of volleyball left for Roustio and the Illini.

As the senior class, a group of seven including Roustio, prepares for their final two games at Huff Hall, they will look to their newest coach for motivation.

“Even if that didn’t happen to her, we all had that mindset that we had to go out there and grind,” Davis said. “But, for sure, Krou being one of my best friends and having a career-ending injury, it wakes you up a little bit. It definitely puts volleyball into perspective and life into perspective of what could possibly happen.”

For Roustio, this weekend will truly be the end of an important part of life.

“It’s crazy to think that this weekend will be my last two matches at Huff Hall,” Roustio said. “I have so many memories playing in Huff Hall that I’ll cherish forever.”

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@Jacob_Diaz31

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