Redshirt freshman Stark’s Illini debut cut short by injury

The Illinois volleyball team went into the Dayton Flyer Classic aware it was in for a feeling-out process. Touted as the No. 7 team in the country, though, the expectations were high. Head coach Kevin Hambly said he did not know what to expect in the first weekend, but has also laid out expectations for his team to compete for a national title.

A surprising Flyers team crushed Illinois in front of the Dayton home crowd, 3-0.

Reactions among the team were varied, but didn’t verge on disappointment, with one exception.

Redshirt freshman Ali Stark, who missed last season due to surgery on a broken pinkie finger, saw her debut tournament, one which the Illini were viewing as a chance to get to know themselves, end in a way she was all too familiar with: looking on, sitting out with an injury.

Stark and fellow outside hitter Jocelynn Birks redshirted last season together and anticipated starting their playing days together as well, an excitement that turned out to be short-lived.

Birks and Stark sat out last year for different reasons — Birks redshirted because presumably Illinois could put her eligibility to better use in 2015 than it could in 2011. They grew close in their year as bench buddies.

They were members of the same recruiting class, had the same redshirt year and are living together this year. And they were playing their first Illini volleyball match on the same night. In the third set of that first match against Dayton, their paths split when Stark came down on middle blocker Erin Johnson’s calf and suffered a sprained ankle. The injury was a learning experience — for everyone else on the team.

“Stuff happens like that. And that’s why we have players that can step up and do the same thing, and they’re learning the same thing,” libero Jennifer Beltran said. “And they’re all gonna be put in that same role and are gonna have to learn how to adapt to things like that.”

In that game, Birks had put on a major performance, hitting .452 and striking 16 kills. Stark’s performance was more modest: four kills, a .182 hit percentage, two attack errors and three return errors.

Sophomore Morganne Criswell played well against Pepperdine with Stark out of the rotation, tying for a team-lead nine kills and hitting .333. Unlike last year, when the duo of Michelle Bartsch and Colleen Ward dominated the outside hitter position, playing time will be more competitive amid a three-player rotation this season.

Of the weekend’s valuable lessons, Stark was unfortunate to become part of a teaching point.

“It was pretty frustrating, especially coming out first match of the year,” Stark said. “Especially coming off an injury last year, it was not the way I wanted to start the season off.”

For Birks, Stark’s roommate, the opposite was true.

“I was just so happy to be in the jersey, finally, and playing for the team with girls that I love and that are my best friends,” she said. “So it was a lot of fun to be on the court and playing in a real game.”

Stark may have had similar feelings before her injury, but is now in the same position she was a week ago. That is, looking to return from injury and play her first full match as an Illini.

Stark said she is “making strides” and is hoping to play this weekend. She did not practice and was wearing a walking boot Tuesday. Hambly said she was day-to-day, and that he doesn’t know whether she’ll play because of the nagging, lingering nature of ankle sprains.

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