Criswell finding ways to contribute despite limited action

Court time has been sparse for Illinois outside hitter Morganne Criswell of late.

Since playing in every set in the Illini’s first seven games of the season, Criswell has been relegated to the bench. Starting at the Texas Invitational, the sophomore has appeared in only one of Illinois’ last five games, and even then, it was a brief appearance during the first set of the Illini’s win against Cincinnati on Sept. 15.

The change had little to do with any negatives from Criswell’s offensive performance. In fact, the sophomore appeared to be hitting her stride before the move, posting double-digit kills in four straight matches leading into the Texas match.

Rather, it was the return of outside hitter Ali Stark to hitting and net duties after an ankle injury she sustained in the season opener that has cut into Criswell’s playing time.

While both Stark and Criswell play the outside hitter position, Stark’s defense and passing is markedly better. Her presence in the lineup allows head coach Kevin Hambly more freedom in his substitutions and rotations, and perhaps more importantly, allow him to keep top offensive threat Jocelynn Birks in the game more frequently.

“(Criswell’s) passing has not been where it needs to be, and Ali is our best passer as an outside hitter,” Hambly said. “So we’re struggling with that skill, and Morganne struggled during that time (the first seven games). When we have her out there it doesn’t allow us to keep Jocelynn out there because we need someone else out there passing because she can’t cover the court.”

Expectably, Criswell’s initial reaction when Hambly told her that news two weeks ago was an unhappy one.

Though Hambly said she was visibly upset, it didn’t take long for Criswell to overcome her initial emotions.

“She worked her way through it,” Hambly said. “And then she’s like, ‘Hey, you gotta be a good teammate,’ and she’s been a great teammate ever since.”

For her part, Criswell was understanding of the move, crediting Stark as an excellent passer and key to the Illini’s success.

“The thought I had is, ‘If this is what’s best for the team, then that’s what we need out there,’” Criswell said.

But the move to the bench hasn’t dampened Criswell’s affect on Illinois, as the sophomore has found other ways to contribute.

“(Criswell) is definitely a celebrator,” Stark said. “She gets the team pumped up and is always cheering, which helps out a lot, especially with the chemistry.

“She brings so much energy, and it gets the team pumped up and excited.”

Criswell’s passion is apparent both on the bench during games and in practice. She’s devoting her efforts to improving her passing and blocking shortcomings, as Hambly says his lineup is always in flux based on whose level of play is higher.

Even with Criswell competing for playing time at the same position as Stark and Birks, Stark and Criswell said there was never animosity between them. At most, Stark termed it as a “friendly competition.”

“I mean there might be some underlying competition, but we don’t really outwardly argue or anything or joke about it that much,” Criswell said.

Criswell and Stark — who lives with Birks — both spoke of an off-the-court friendship that keeps the trio tight knit.

“We’re together like 24/7,” Criswell said. “We can’t really be separated much.”

If Criswell continues to improve in practice, they could be spending more time together on the court.

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