Birks puts finishing touches on volleyball’s team effort in weekend tournament

Despite garnering tournament MVP and Big Ten Freshman and Player of the Week honors, Jocelynn Birks — as well as head coach Kevin Hambly and almost any Illini player or coach you ask — would be quick to disperse credit for this weekend’s performance at the Texas Invitational. Hambly called the two-match stretch Illinois’ most consistent weekend in terms of total team effort.

But in the biggest game of her young Illinois career, Birks delivered a performance that speaks for itself.

After losing the first set to the then-No. 6 Longhorns 25-18, it was Birks who capped the next two sets with clinching kills, two of her 21 on the night, as Illinois went up 2-1 by winning consecutive sets by a score of 25-21. Illinois would go on to win in five sets. Birks hit .204 on 54 kill attempts against Texas — lower than her season-to-date average of .255, but enough to carry Illinois offensively. Where she really improved markedly, Hambly said, was on defense.

“Jocelynn did great back there,” he said. “She definitely made a jump (in passing performance), but it’s hard to say that because she didn’t really play back row except for against the Dayton match.”

Her hitting came easier as the weekend went on and she played teams of lesser caliber than the freakishly athletic Longhorns. She hit .394 with 15 kills in a three-set rout of Central Florida and .262 against a gritty Cincinnati team looking to avenge a loss from a week prior.

Birks has been the leading hitter throughout the preconference season and will likely continue in that role for the rest of her career at Illinois. Thus far, she has averaged a team-leading 4.26 kills per set. Liz McMahon is second on the team with 2.33 kills per set. Ali Stark, currently averaging 1.12 kills per set, should see her numbers increase, as she returned in earnest from an ankle sprain this weekend and had 95 kill attempts in three games, second to Birks’ 152.

Stark’s presence in the lineup was what allowed Birks to play more of the back row, Hambly said. Birks had 40 digs on the weekend and put up three double-double (kill-digs) games. She had none prior to this weekend.

“I’m really excited to be able to do what I can for the team and help everyone out. If that’s what they need me to do, I’m happy to take on that role, and I’m excited that I can do it,” Birks said, emphasizing the word “can” in the last sentence.

Birks’ kill production was directly tied to the passing of Annie Luhrsen. The senior setter had a season-high 52 assists against Texas. She said having Birks — whom she had previously called a “subtly confident player” — as a target makes things pretty easy for her.

“When you talk about setting hitters, you kinda talk about … the range that the set needs to be in, and Jocelynn’s range is huge,” Luhrsen said. “She’s not too picky about the sets, and I mean, I’m working hard to get her the best set possible, but she’s a good player, and her range is pretty big.”

This range makes her a stellar outside hitting prospect. And for a program that has produced players like Colleen Ward, Laura DeBruler and Rachel Van Meter, being considered the best hitting prospect Hambly has coached at Illinois is a compliment.

“She’s maybe the best prospect we’ve had, attacking-wise, in that position,” he said of Birks. “Better than those other ones. I don’t know, time will tell, but the potential’s there for that.”

When talking about his Big Ten Freshman of the Year candidate, Hambly went back and forth, saying she’s great, catching himself, saying she’s going to be great, then adding that she is great at times already. After redshirting a year, Birks is evidently blurring the line between potential and performance.

“I think everyone’s potential is limitless, and I think it’s the same for her,” Luhrsen said. “I think it’s gonna be as great as she makes it, and she’s a hard worker, so it’s kind of exciting to see where it can go.”

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