Illinois volleyball incorporating fresh faces into defensive scheme

Kevin Hambly could be a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas by December.

The Illinois head volleyball coach has been shuffling his backline on a regular basis this season in an attempt to find combinations that produce success.

Without the steady production provided by graduates Michelle Bartsch, Colleen Ward and Rachel Feldman, who combined for 1,181 of Illinois’ 2,208 digs last season (53 percent), Hambly has been forced to insert defensive specialists into the game more often in this young season. Senior Jackie Wolfe played a similar role during her first three years at Illinois but has seen increased time this season and has started five of seven matches. Junior Courtney Abrahamovich has appeared in 14 of the Illini’s 27 sets this season after only playing in a single set last season, and freshman Julia Conard has seen action in 22 sets.

For the relatively inexperienced trio, Hambly said the team’s defensive schemes can at times be difficult to pick up on, with only one way to get better.

“Play it a lot, get used to it, learn it, get better,” Hambly said. “There’s a lot of decisions. The difference is we’re not telling them where to go. They have to see where to go and decide. It’s all based on what you see and what’s in front of you. And that takes some time to figure that out.”

Conard spent the last four years playing outside hitter for West Chicago High School, where she is the all-time kills leader. As a high schooler, though, Conard was a multitool player, who also contributed defensively. That experience helped her overcome any growing pains and transition to her new role as a defensive specialist for the Illini.

“My energy has turned from getting a kill to preventing a kill now,” Conard said.

Hambly evaluated Conard, Wolfe and Abrahamovich’s play in the early portion of the season as “up and down like everybody else.”

Outside hitter Ali Stark’s early season ankle sprain hasn’t made life any easier for Hambly. The fourth-year head coach called Stark a “stabilizer” for Illinois’ passing game. Similar to Bartsch and Ward, Stark is particularly valuable to the Illini because of her ability to play in both the front and backlines. But with the redshirt freshman mostly limited to the backline since her injury and fellow outside hitters Jocelynn Birks and Morganne Criswell mainly playing at the net, the traffic to and from the bench has increased.

Amid all the shuffling, junior libero Jennifer Beltran, who holds two best single-season digs marks in Illinois history, has been a steady mainstay. She has tried to step into a leadership role for the Illini this season.

“Vocally, I’m trying to take responsibility,” Beltran said. “Especially kind of being more vocal when it comes to directing what defense we’re gonna play against certain hitters or just reminding people of where to go.”

Just as Conard takes time to learn the system, it’s taking Beltran time to adjust to playing with new players. The junior is attempting to define her range, or how much of the court she can cover, and what balls to leave for her teammates. Hambly has already seen improvements taking place.

“I see at times she looks like herself and sometimes she’s trying to do too much and make up for some inexperience back there,” Hambly said. “But I thought she started settling down last Saturday a lot. Her best match so far has been last Saturday.”

Beltran’s comfort level has increased synonymously with that of the team’s.

“Before, we were way out of position and moving all over the place, and now we’re in the right position and we’re there,” Hambly said. “We’re just not making the plays. We’re not finishing the plays, and at some point, we’re going to finish those plays and be pretty good.”

_Daniel can be reached at [email protected] and @danielmillermc._