Freshman Raina Terry a bright spot for struggling Illini

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Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Outside hitter Raina Terry hits the ball against Ohio State on Feb. 19, 2020 at Huff Hall. After overcoming mono in December, Terry has been a valuable player to the struggling Illini.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

The 2021 season may prove to be one of the most difficult years in history to be a true freshman in college volleyball. When COVID-19 hit last year, practices that typically helped freshmen prepare for college competition were cut off, and players were forced to isolate, removing both physical preparation and the ability to build connections with teammates.

Freshman outside hitter Raina Terry had it worse than most, suffering from a bad case of mono in December on top of the pandemic-related challenges. In spite of it all, she’s worked her way up to being one of the most dominant players on Illinois’ roster — and she’s still getting better every match.

In her past four matches alone, she’s set four consecutive career highs in kills, registering 8, 13, 14 and 19 kills, respectively. She’s done it incredibly efficiently, hitting .283 in her most recent career-best game of 19 kills against Ohio State.

Despite her eye-popping numbers, Terry thinks she isn’t even operating at 100%.

“I think I still have a lot more work to do to get back to where I was before, but I’m definitely getting there,” Terry said. “It’s going by a lot faster than I thought it would, and that’s thanks to my coaching staff for believing in me, and my strength coach for believing in me and pushing me in the weight room to get back to where I was before too, so props to them. (I’m) slowly working my way back up.”

Recovering from mono has been one factor among many that led to a slow start to Terry’s season and her subsequent ascension. She’s also needed to adjust to an expanded role due to Ellie Holzman’s injury, along with changing her game to suit the college level as a whole.

“I came from a really high-level club, so I think I came in prepared for the intensity (of practice), but Big Ten play is obviously really competitive and that was a curveball,” Terry said. “Obviously with Ellie going down, I had to take a six-rotation role. That was a lot of pressure at first, (I’m) not going to lie. I leaned a lot on my teammates and especially my coaches.”

As far as Big Ten play goes, Terry has cited adjusting to the size of players being something she’s had to work on. In high school, standing at 6-foot-1 was considered tall compared to her competition, allowing Terry to be very physical at the net. In Big Ten play, standing at 6-foot-1 means a lot less when routinely facing teams like Wisconsin that have 6-foot-8 middle blockers.

Now as a small fish in a big pond rather than vice versa, Terry has had to modify many of her hitting motions to get around larger opposing players.

“Especially for a freshman, she has a really good idea of when to fully swing or when to just keep the ball in play, which is something you might not always see,” said senior setter Kylie Bruder. “I think she’s been doing a really great job on the outside. It’s not an easy thing to do, come in as a freshman and start on the outside. I think she’s done a great job coming into that role.”

While Terry has spent a lot of time overcoming physical challenges, she’s also dealt with mental tests. While still working herself back to full strength after having mono, Terry was thrust into the spotlight when Holzman tore her ACL. Taking up the six-rotation role came with a lot of pressure, Terry says, but she has worked to make the pressure work for her rather than against her.

“I’ve heard people say that when you stop being nervous, you should probably stop playing,” Terry said. “I think there’s always going to be nerves, but definitely the good kind of nerves now. I’m not playing safe anymore. I’m definitely going after things. There are definitely still nerves, just the good kind.”

Terry’s transformation from a back-of-the-rotation freshman to an everyday player with star potential couldn’t have come soon enough for the struggling Illini. Currently, they sit at a paltry 2-6 and are on a six-game losing streak, the longest of head coach Chris Tamas’ tenure at Illinois. If Terry can show consistency with her recent strides, the Illini may have a chance to turn their season around.

Regardless, Terry is showing potential to be a building block in an Illinois program searching for a new identity after the graduation of most of its players from the 2018 Final Four team. Next season, Illinois has the potential to form a scary pin hitter tandem between Terry and Holzman if the latter can come back healthy.

@WesHollenberg

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