Redshirt freshman Maddie Mayers kills in debut for Illini volleyball

Maddie Mayers has done her fair share of waiting.

After sitting out all of last year, Mayers, a redshirt freshman middle blocker, debuted for the Illinois volleyball team with a 29-kill, 20-block weekend that won her both Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors and an all-tournament team selection in the Long Beach State Mizuno Invitational.

Mayers wasn’t the only Illini underclassman to aid the team this weekend, with contributions coming in from Danielle Davis, Katie Stadick, Katie Roustio and McKenna Kelsay who were all freshmen in their debuts.

“Everyone’s contributing, which is cool,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “We played basically everybody. I think Maddie stood out because she was one of the main offensive weapons that we had this weekend. But we got McKenna in there, we got Dee (Danielle Davis) in there, and they helped us win sets. … So I think the freshmen are coming along just fine.”

The Illini faced No. 18 Florida State to start the weekend Friday night in what turned out to be an exceptional Mayers’ first start for the team.

Mayers had 11 kills in 16 attempts and hit .625 for the game.

After beating the Seminoles, the Illini lost to Long Beach State as Mayers couldn’t seem to find an offensive rhythm with sophomore setter Alexis Villunas, despite finishing with seven blocks.

“(For) Maddie, this is what we see in practice, so it wasn’t that big of a surprise to us that she could score like that,” Hambly said. “Real low error, hits high. Long Beach State, we weren’t getting a good set to her, so she struggled, but against Kentucky we got a good set to her, and she was right back on track hitting high, and it was fun to see her make some big swings at big moments in that match.”

Both the Illini and Mayers responded in the third game against No. 17 Kentucky as Illinois beat the Wildcats to advance to 2-1 on the weekend; Mayers tallied 13 kills and 9 blocks in the third game.

“I think I played pretty well,” Mayers said. “Lex (Villunas) and I were clicking. The first match against Florida State and the last match against Kentucky, I just thought that her and I just had a really good thing going and it helped that our defense and our passing were spot on for those games.”

Sophomore outside hitter Ali Stark said the younger members of the team have been playing well both in practice and in matches.

“The freshmen have come in really strong and have been working as hard as everyone else getting into the swing of things and learning the system,” Stark said. “They have really been working their butts off, which has really been pushing the upperclassmen.”

Although Mayers liked that the tournament recognized her performance, she added the individual awards don’t really matter.

“It was exciting,” Mayers said. “It’s nice. It doesn’t mean a lot to me, but my family is pretty proud of it.”

Mayers attributed a lot of her sudden success to redshirting last year.

“I think it was great,” Mayers said. “I had E.J. (Erin Johnson) and Anna (Dorn) to watch. They’re obviously great examples to learn from when you’re not playing. I definitely got quicker. I got stronger. The system, it definitely slows it down when you’re watching it for so long.”

Hambly said having a year to get into the system makes the Illini play older than they are.

“No freshman has any idea how to play college volleyball,” Hambly said. “So having a year to prepare for that and see it and be in the gym every day and be around those players. But getting them strong enough and getting them to understand how strong they have to work is huge … and we wouldn’t get that without it.”

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and @IlliniSportsGuy.