Illinois volleyball prepares for tournament play, will face former player

The Illinois volleyball team is wasting no time getting back to business.

A three-match, two-day tournament in Dayton, Ohio, will be where the Illini season embarks from.

Familiarity will be a prominent storyline on the weekend. After weeks of practice and finally a scrimmage against an alumnae squad, the Illini will meet familiar foe Dayton on Friday night — the two teams have played each other in seven consecutive seasons. Though a headline-worthy match with No. 11 Pepperdine looms Saturday morning, head coach Kevin Hambly’s team is excited and focused on game one.

“Dayton took us to five (sets) last year and probably should have beat us at our place,” Hambly said. “So our focus is just on Dayton. I’m not even sure if our girls know who we’re playing after that and when.”

Dayton is unranked but was the third team out of the top 25 in the preseason coaches’ poll.

Volleyball focus aside, it’d be hard for the Illini to overlook a reunion with a former teammate. When Illinois squares off against Pepperdine, hitter Jazmine Orozco will be playing for the opposition.

Orozco missed most of last season’s title run with post-concussion symptoms, sought transfer and wound up in Malibu, Calif., with the Waves. Hambly declined comment on the nature of Orozco’s transfer, but she is still on good terms with the team.

“She was our teammate, she was a friend of ours, we still keep in touch,” middle blocker Erin Johnson said. “So I think we’re just excited to see her, actually.”

The reunion will do little to soften the Illini’s intensity.

“I think we’re all excited to see each other,” setter Annie Luhrsen said. “But when we get out on the court, it’s gonna be U of I versus Pepperdine. It’s not against any individual, so no one takes anything personally, but at the same time we wanna win.”

Later Saturday, the Illini face Ohio, a team Illinois will be playing for just the second time ever.

The weekend tournament will be the first real competition for some prominent Illinois players. Jocelynn Birks and Ali Stark will play their first collegiate match. Both freshmen redshirted last season, which Luhrsen thinks will prove helpful in their acclimation to the college game.

“I’ve gotten to know them as hitters pretty well throughout the past year, and preseason has really just been a focus on finding what type of speed and what type of tempo set works for each individual,” Luhrsen said.

With the task of implementing new talent before them, the Illini are not wavering in their attitude or aggressiveness, Johnson said. But Illinois is not going to ignore a necessary feeling-out process.

“We obviously know that we’re not going to be playing our peak volleyball at this time. We don’t want to be. You want to be doing that at the end of the season,” Johnson said. “We’re going into it knowing that we’re kinda trying to find out who we are as a team and find our identity as a team and still working with each other to get (into) the groove of playing with new teammates.”

Though a match with Pepperdine stands out in Illinois’ first weekend, Hambly said he doesn’t care who the team plays, or even what the results are, but only how his team performs.

“You don’t really know anything about yourself till you’re fighting, till you’re playing,” Hambly said. “I’m hoping to figure out what we are more and try to figure out what we need to work on and try to see what we have. I don’t know, it’s the first match, we’re trying to figure out all kinds of things.”