Illini volleyball looks forward to new season

After a thrilling 2011 campaign — with the final point scored against them being the final point of the college volleyball season — last year looms large behind the Illini. And while objects in the rearview mirror may be closer than they appear, the distance makes no difference when you elect not to look.

“Last season doesn’t matter at all anymore, for anybody,” head coach Kevin Hambly said.

While bouncing back after being denied a title may make for a good storyline, Hambly, as well as his team, is pretty much over it.

“Coming back, being around the girls, being around the new freshmen, it’s a whole different feel. And we’re on to a new chapter,” libero Jennifer Beltran said. “We’re ready, we’re hungry, we want this again, we wanna get there, we know what it feels like.”

Jocelynn Birks had VIP seats to last year’s 32-5 season, which she used as a redshirt year. As an outside hitter, she would have been on the bench most of the time anyway, with the likes of All-Americans Colleen Ward and Michelle Bartsch ahead of her.

After getting the chance to watch and admire the dominant pair all last season, she’s not set on filling their shoes as much as she is on providing a new pair.

“My style is probably a little different because I’m goofy and laid-back. But I mean they’re obviously awesome players, and I hope I can be even close to what they were,” Birks said.

She redshirted by choice, not because of injury. On Aug. 24, when the Illini play their first match in the Dayton Flyer Classic, the long road to her first collegiate game will come to an end, and a much more exciting and important journey will begin. Birks, along with redshirt freshman Ali Stark and sophomore Morganne Criswell , will step up to fill the spots left vacant by Bartsch and Ward. All three will play, Hambly said.

With Bartsch and Ward gone, as well as Jazmine Orozco, who transfered to Pepperdine, team identity has been a topic of discussion among the players.

“Honestly we don’t know yet. That’s something we’re gonna have to work on and it’s gonna be a process for us,” Beltran said. “But it’s something that we talk about as a team, and how important it’s gonna be for us, and it’s kinda the first thing we have to figure out before getting everything else together.”

Hambly said the style of play will remain a constant.

“Illinois volleyball is gonna play tough defense, we’re gonna serve tough. We’re gonna have grind-it-out matches and make it ugly at times,” he said.

Even though the team ended last year with its highest ranking ever at No. 2, Hambly maintains that it fell short of expectations.

“The expectations for the program every year is to win it all,” Hambly said. “Every kid that’s come here has come with that in mind: try to win national championships. So that’s gonna be what it is.”

Though it was a benchmark year in Illinois volleyball history, it seems as though 2011 was just the beginning.