Final Four Notebook: A closer look at Illinois’ journey

By Eli Schuster, Sports Editor

One last ride

For seniors Jordyn Poulter, Ali Bastianelli and Blayke Hranicka, a Final Four loss marked the last time the three would compete together in an Illini uniform.

Embracing after the game, the players met with their teammates at center court, tears in their eyes.

“I think you think about the things that we had to go through,” Poulter said after the match. “(We) went through a coaching change. We went through just people transferring. We went through people coming in. Ultimately we stuck it out. I think that’s special.”

Hranicka herself was one of those who transferred into the program after a successful season with N.C. State, being named an All-ACC Freshman and earning two all-tournament honors over the course of the season.

However, with Big Ten volleyball on her mind, Hranicka had an idea of where she wanted to go.

“Illinois was the best option at the time, and I loved it,” Hranicka said.

It didn’t hurt that the transferring player also had a connection with one of the team’s top young hopefuls. Poulter and Hranicka played club volleyball together, something both players won’t fail to mention when pointing out their now longterm relationship.

With the transfer complete, Hranicka saw action in seven matches over the course of her first season, which more than tripled in her junior season with 23 matches played.

“I can’t say enough great things about Blayke, just accepting whatever role that we put her in. Just working hard,” head coach Chris Tamas said.

While her senior season saw substantially less playing time, her relationship with the program continued to grow into what she describes as a “family atmosphere.”

“I could have never imagined this is where we would be my senior year,” Hranicka said. “If I was telling my high school self this … I don’t know what I would have done, I probably would have cried.”

Poulter, Bastianelli and Hranicka practiced for the last time on their home court in Huff Hall Tuesday afternoon before beginning the team’s Final Four journey. Not knowing what the Nebraska match would bring, a communal feeling of confidence and reflection was expressed throughout the team.

“Just being able to end out careers like this, there is no other word than amazing because this is what we worked for all four years,” Bastianelli said.

Now sitting two days later at the press conference media desk, Poulter reflected on the officially ended tournament trip. Graduating from the university in only a couple weeks, Poulter recognized that her time as an Illini was running out.

“I think when we reflect on our time here, we’re going to talk nothing about the losses or bad things that happened to us,” Poulter said. “We’ll talk about experiences like this … I’m going to start crying if I keep talking. Sorry.”

Keeping energy high and a changing team dynamic

Illinois’ 17-game win streak was snapped at the Target Center Thursday night, but with the game on the line in the fifth set, Illinois was still smiling in the huddle during a late timeout.

A large talking point heading into the contest was the adjustment to the size of the arena. Huff Hall houses around 5,000, while the Target Center brought in the third-largest NCAA volleyball championship crowd ever with 17,808.

“I think it’s hard when we’ve never been in such a high-pressure situation before,” Poulter said. “The lights get a little bigger. I think we did a good job of moving on from the next point. I think it ultimately came down to our execution in those moments.”

The seniors have been instrumental in leading the way for this Illini team, according to Tamas. In tight moments, Bastianelli is often times easing the tension. The dancing and light-hearted nature is a part of Bastianelli’s game, something she says is simply just her personality.

“Even if it’s a timeout and everyone is back on the court and we are still joking, I mean obviously there is a time and a place to do that, but I really think volleyball is fun and I think I express that a lot,” Bastianelli said.

The team stands by an ideology of keeping things, as Bastianelli describes it, at a “level five.” A priority to stay calm and balanced can sometimes be forgotten in a tight match and Bastianelli says that even one joke can help bring the mood back down.

Fellow senior Hranicka has noticed the shift in team dynamic this season, which has helped lead to a positive energy. And, for her, it starts with the coaching staff.

“They are genuinely great people and they support us,” Hranicka said. “They are teaching us athletic, dynamic volleyball which is exciting, they let you be the athlete that you were meant to be.”

Sophomore Morgan O’Brien stepped into a bigger role this season after the departure of longtime libero Brandi Donnelly.

Receiving playing time last season due to a Donnelly injury, O’Brien managed to experience every aspect of playing at the college-level early in her career. And while playing important minutes in her freshman season was helpful for her personal growth, she has also seen a growth within the team itself.

“I think there is a huge difference in the team dynamic honestly,” O’Brien said. “Everyone here, everyone on the team has the same goal and everyone goes into practice every day wanting to give 100 percent and wanting to win and last year didn’t feel like that.”

Breakout season for Quade

The most dominant player for Illinois this season was the junior from Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Jacqueline Quade put together her best collegiate season by recording a team-high 560 kills, good enough for ranking fifth in the nation.

In the Final Four game, Illinois continually ran through the outside hitter as she collected her eighth kill-dig double-double of the season, recording 28 kills and 10 digs on the night.

“Toughest position as there is on the court,” Tamas said. “She did a great job, as seen by her first-team All-American this year. Very well-deserved by her.”

Closing effort

After getting out to a 2-0 match lead with a dominant second set showing, the night quickly fell sour for the Illini.

Nebraska outside hitter Lexi Sun and Mikeala Foecke put up a dominant showing over three straight sets to help the Cornhuskers advance to the team’s second straight NCAA championship.

“I’ve seen Lexi play since she was in eighth grade, knew she was a good player,” Tamas said. “Not a surprise she had the night that she did.”

Sun and Foecke finished with 19 kills each, with the final kill of the night coming off the hands of Foecke for the 15-11 set five finish.

Nebraska head coach John Cook was congratulatory of Tamas, his former assistant coach turned head coach. He stated that he wasn’t surprised by the team’s success and that he never wanted to lose the coach as a member of his staff in the first place.

“It’s kind of a bittersweet match,” Cook said. “I’m glad we won, but it was an honor to play them. It represented the Big Ten really well, represented both programs really well.”

As for coach Tamas, he too shared congratulations to the Husker team but emphasized even more-so the feeling he has for the players on his team.

“Just really proud of their efforts,” Tamas said. “Happy that I’m their coach and that we’ve been around each other day in, day out for the last couple years. (I) really do appreciate it.”

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