Freshman McMahon ready to make mark

Liz McMahon makes the volleyball net look low.

Standing at 6-foot-6, the freshman is projected to start the first regular season game on Friday against BYU. But she won’t be the only freshman who gets playing time.

Like McMahon, outside hitters Morganne Criswell and Ali Stark will get playing time in the backfield, head coach Kevin Hambly said.

“All of our freshmen are very, very good,” senior Colleen Ward said. “It will be exciting to see them play at least not just in practice any more. They’re all great attackers, they’re all above the level you’d expect freshman to come in so they can contribute.”

Ward and fellow senior and outside hitter Michelle Bartsch have taken it upon themselves to mentor the freshmen in the preseason since they all play the same position. Ward’s main goal so far this season: make sure the freshmen understand the system.

“Just being able to watch (Ward and Bartsch) in practice and kind of learn from them and they do demos,” McMahon said. “And be able to even watch video and watch them show me how to do things and see how their style of play is.”

Making sure the freshmen are meshing well is key — considering Illinois has the No. 3-ranked class and the No. 3-ranked player in McMahon. But Hambly wants to stress that the freshmen, especially McMahon, are being ranked on potential, not necessarily performance.

“The expectations for Lizzy over time are going to be that she’s gonna be a stud,” Hambly said. “I think she’ll have moments this year where she can be tremendous for us. But I think there will be moments when she’s not.”

One freshman who will not get playing time this season is Jocelynn Birks, who is redshirting. Hambly said the decision to redshirt Birks was to give her time to develop her passing and ball control. Now she can compete for an outside hitter position the next four years.

“There’s a lot of competition in (the outside hitter) spot and we think she’s going to be a tremendous player and be a six rotation player like a Collen Ward or a Michelle Bartsch,” Hambly said. “She has that kind of size and that kind of arm. So she needs some time to catch up on it.”

Hambly said the other three freshmen can contribute a lot to the Illini this season. Even though McMahon is starting, Hambly said it has more to deal with personnel — since McMahon plays on the right side, where the other freshman are on the left — than being an overall better player.

“The thing (McMahon) has is a physical presence. She’s a baller, too. She can play,” Hambly said. “For her it’s not like she’s way ahead, but the potential is endless for that kid.”

Criswell and Stark also give their own personal style. Criswell, who Hambly calls “an explosive player,” has performed better than expected on defense, where Stark is a versatile player, who Habmly said could play any position from setter to libero.

Like all freshmen, however, the class also has weaknesses. Hambly said all the freshmen could improve on “everything.” From ball control to blocking to better decision making, the freshmen have a long way before they truly understand college athletics.

Despite the need for improvement, Hambly is proud of how the freshmen have played for the team instead of themselves. With all four athletes playing outside hitter and two seniors at the position, the competitiveness is abundant.

“They have to put whatever personal agendas that they have aside and be teammates,” Hambly said. “And all of them are doing a great job being teammates. So I’m proud of them, I think it’s hard. There’s a lot of competition.”