Freshman setter Viliunas hopes to reap redshirt benefits

The reason for redshirting a player is simple.

“We don’t waste years,” head coach Kevin Hambly said.

It is all but official that the freshman setter Alexis Viliunas will sit the season out before taking the reins next year, when she will be the team’s only returning player at that position.

Viliunas said she was under the impression she would redshirt when asked about her status — a far from a certain answer, especially with Hambly describing the move, in kind, as “likely.”

Hambly clarified, though, that the only thing keeping Viliunas from redshirting is the possibility of injury for starting setter Annie Luhrsen. Viliunas can remain eligible both to play and to redshirt as long as she doesn’t enter the game.

He also said that, were it possible, he would redshirt every player for their freshman season. Redshirting allows for the player to observe the college game, get stronger, get adjusted to the college lifestyle and learn the team’s system while saving the stress that comes with playing in games and saving a year of eligibility.

Last season, Jocelynn Birks redshirted despite suffering no injury and being a top recruit at the head of a class of three outside hitters, including Ali Stark and Morganne Criswell. Birks confided in her former teammate, Viliunas, who was still in high school, that she was going to be sitting out.

“It was — not upsetting, but of course you’re not gonna be as happy as you are about (sitting on the bench) as you are about (playing),” Birks said. It didn’t take Birks long, however, to realize that Hambly was right about sitting her out her first year.

“I understood why he wanted to do it,” Birks said. “It was a really good idea, and I realized even after the fact … I had so much time to get strong physically and watch the game and learn some things from the older players.”

Those “older players” included All-American seniors Michelle Bartsch and Colleen Ward, whose dominance at the outside hitter position played a large role in Hambly’s prompting Birks to redshirt.

“Some of it we talk about in the recruiting process, like, ‘Hey, look, it’s gonna be tough for you to beat this kid out, so instead of wasting a year let’s redshirt you,’” Hambly said. “It seems like it’s a hard thing the first year, but I think when they’re seniors, they’ll look back and go: ‘That’s awesome. I’m glad I redshirted. Now I had four years where I could start.’”

For Birks — and Viliunas — Hambly introduced the idea of redshirting just before the team’s alumni match, which takes place a week or so before the season begins.

As Hambly said, however, he cannot redshirt every player, so when Ali Stark got surgery on a broken finger, she redshirted as well, leaving Morganne Criswell as the lone member of the class of three outside hitters who played out her year of eligibility.

“I think it was a good spot to be in last year,” Criswell said. “I didn’t get as much playing time maybe as I would have liked, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think last year was awesome.”

As her former high school teammate did last season, Alexis Viliunas looks to redshirt her first year at Illinois.

It will be a year where she can practice with the team, get her body into better shape and fully acclimate herself to Hambly’s system without experiencing that learning curve during game situations.

“Before, like when I was coming in, I knew there was a chance that I could play because me and Kevin talked about it,” Viliunas said. “So there was a lot of pressure on me, and I just wanted to be perfect. I wanted to do whatever I could to get in the game.”

And while Viliunas gets acclimated to not playing in volleyball games — an odd transition for someone who garnered Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year and Chicago Tribune Player of the Year awards in 2011 — she’s already starting to appreciate the sacrifice she’s making for the team and for herself.

“There’s definitely a lot less stress,” she said. “I know that I can be prepared for the game, but I know that I don’t have to be as prepared as the people who are actually going in the game. I just have to be there for my team. Support them.”

_Eliot can be reached at [email protected] and @EliotTweet._