Halfway through season, Illinois volleyball still working toward championship

If one were to ask Kevin Hambly what he thinks his volleyball squad can work on, he’d say everything.

He’d offer to sit down and write a laundry list of his team’s imperfections.

Back on Oct. 15, when Illinois defeated Michigan State, the Illini head coach said, “I’m perpetually unhappy, and (we’re) always pushing. And you’re going forward or going back. You’re getting better or getting worse.”

The Illini are 10 matches into the Big Ten season and have 10 more to go. At this point, Hambly has yet to see the defensive and offensive Illinois team he envisioned since the beginning of the season, and he’s OK with that.

Instead, he expects his team to be polished by December, when the NCAA tournament begins.

“I know it seems like a very distinct point because it’s the halfway point, but it’s a process that’s been going on for a long time,” Hambly said about improvements for his team. “We’re on that path, and I think we’ve been getting better every week in practice. Sometimes, it takes a while to show up in matches.”

Hambly said he knows his team is growing the way he wants it to because “our numbers are saying that, and the eye test is telling that.”

Part of Illinois’ system is reading what its opponents are doing, and then adjusting accordingly.

It sounds basic, but it also takes time to get used to, especially for Illinois’ three new starters.

After redshirting last season, junior Annie Luhrsen became Illinois’ new starting setter and is still getting accustomed to her role.

“I’m learning a lot every single day, whether it’s in matches or in practices,” said Luhrsen, who transferred after playing one year at Connecticut. “It’s a lot to handle, and sometimes it can be stressful, but I think I’m learning more and more how to manage everything. … I’m not worried about figuring it out, but I think it takes time, and it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Luhrsen ranks No. 3 in the conference in assists, averaging 11.18 per set. Helping her along the way has been improved communication with her hitters, especially seniors Michelle Bartsch and Colleen Ward.

“With Bartsch and Ward, we’ve worked really hard to kind of figure out what we need to say to each other when things might not be going the right way, or figure out what to say to each other when things are going the right way,” Luhrsen said. “That’s with the middle (blockers) too and just figuring out different little things that help us kind of improve and connect better in the offense.”

The season has had its ups and downs for freshmen starters Liz McMahon and Anna Dorn. In a historic match against then-No. 8 Penn State, Dorn tied a school record with 13 blocks, but went cold at Nebraska this past weekend with just three block assists, also hitting -.400.

“That’s the nature of being a freshman,” Hambly said. “All the teams with starting freshmen are going though the same thing. … That’s probably where I expect them to be, and I expect them at the end of the Big Ten to not be freshmen anymore.”

Hambly added that the first half of the season is focused on defense and the second half is getting the offense caught up.

The Illini will play many of the conference teams for the second time and will test how much they’ve really improved.

“Every time we play a team (again), we want to get better and play better than we did before,” Ward said. “Every team is different the second time you play them. So we definitely just want to keep improving ourselves mostly. Especially now, we still have so many things to work on.”