Illini of the Week: Unsung Illini blocker earns Big Ten recognition

Erin Johnson knows how to make her presence known on the court.

Described as the Illinois volleyball team’s emotional leader, the 6-foot-3-inch junior takes charge in team huddles during timeouts and fist pumps after a team point.

“She’s got the personality to get everyone’s attention and does a good job of putting things into words and being concise,” junior Annie Luhrsen said.

Johnson got outsiders’ attention this week, earning her first Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honor after posting 11 kills and a career-high 10 blocks against then-No. 9 Minnesota on Saturday. As a middle blocker, Johnson’s contributions tend to go unnoticed, so head coach Kevin Hambly thought it was about time she got “some love.”

“She gets an award from us all the time, and that’s just a pat on the back like, ‘Hey, thanks for doing what you’re doing,’” Hambly said. “To have someone else notice and recognize that’s she’s bringing a lot to the program, that’s great.”

Hambly said Johnson played a key role in holding the Gophers to -.073 and -.048 hitting percentages in the second and fifth set, respectively, and her efforts at the middle block are a reason why the No. 1 Illini are 13-0.

“Her role is not a star role; it’s a blue collar role,” Hambly said. “(Johnson and redshirt freshman Anna Dorn) got to work their butts off on defense and try to get their hands on every single attack that goes across the net.”

Illinois’ playing system starts with its middle blockers, who must work on reading their opponent’s setter rather than taking chances on defense.

Though Johnson’s position is crucial in setting the tone for the rest of her teammates, she said there isn’t much pressure because of her veteran experience. But the feeling was quite different her freshman year, especially as a starter in a conference full of nationally ranked teams.

“I was definitely really timid,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of an intimidating thing to play in the Big Ten straight out of high school, club volleyball. It’s different playing in college. It’s really fast.”

Now, she said she has embraced a leadership role that suits her character and the team.

“I would say I’m really an emotional player,” Johnson said.

“Sometimes, I held that back a lot last year, and I think this year our team plays more on emotions than it has in the past, and I certainly fit in with that.”

“It just comes with time and age and knowing that’s my role … I’ve become more comfortable speaking up,” Johnson added.

As for the Big Ten honor, Johnson didn’t think much of it. She learned the news via a text from teammate Tayler Onion.

While the recognition initially went unnoticed by her, it wasn’t ignored by her fellow Illini.

“People notice plays and things that actually happen, but they don’t notice the intricacies of teammates interacting,” Luhrsen said. “When she comes out on the court, she brings a lot of fire, and I think that that’s something that makes her really special, plus she’s blocking and hitting and doing everything.”