Mayers leading Illini in blocks in her 1st year

Rejection is rarely a positive feeling for the recipient or the giver.

When it comes to volleyball, though, the Illini bask in familiarizing their opponents with feelings of despair, despondency and frustration. Led by freshman Maddie Mayers, Illinois is the top team in the Big Ten and ranks seventh in the nation at blocking with an average of 3.13 blocks per set.

“I think it’s really important (to maintain a high block average),” Mayers said. “We’re going to be playing a lot of big, strong, physical teams, and putting up a block will definitely help us in the long run.”

Mayers is at the forefront of the Illini’s front row defense. In her first weekend of play in Long Beach, Calif., the freshman wrapped up the three-game weekend with 20 blocks, 29 kills and a .345 hitting percentage. She garnered Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors for that performance. Illinois finished 2-1, beating two top-25 ranked opponents in the process.

Mayers now leads the Big Ten in blocks with 34, eight more than the next best in the conference. She also ranks third in the nation with 1.79 blocks per set.

“I think she’s doing an incredible job,” junior Anna Dorn said. “You can definitely tell that she’s very comfortable out there on the court, which is really a great thing for a freshman.

“Speaking from personal experience, being out there for your first year can be really intimidating and you can feel like you have a lot of pressure upon you, but I think she’s handling that in a fantastic way. … I don’t think she’s playing like a true freshman at all.”

Historically, Dorn is one of Illinois’ more talented middle blockers. As a freshman, she finished third in the conference in blocks and block assists, averaging 1.28 blocks per set and 184 assists on the season.

Last season, Dorn became a more complete player, hitting .383 on the season, good for fourth in the conference and 19th in the nation, while also tallying 106 blocks.

Unfortunately for Illinois, its offensive statistics have lacked thus far compared to other Big Ten teams. Heading into Friday’s matches against Arizona State and No. 6 Washington, the Illini are ranked last in assists and kills. They are also ranked second to last in hitting percentage and service aces.

Statistics don’t tell the whole story, though, according to Dorn. Not only is it early in the season, but the Illini have also played one of the toughest nonconference schedules thus far. She also said the numbers should even out as teams begin conference play; however, the news caught her off guard.

“I’m kind of a little bit surprised by that, just because we have some really strong hitters,” she said. “The stat is not an indication by any means that we don’t have as strong of hitters as other teams.”

Individually, the Illini do in fact have two of the conference’s best hitters. Conference coaches voted sophomore Jocelynn Birks and junior Liz McMahon to the preseason All-Conference team. Birks currently sits second in the conference with a 4.58 kills per set average and has accumulated 87 kills. Both hitters rank in the top ten in points per set as well, with Birks third (5.05) and McMahon ninth (4.13).

Blake can be reached at [email protected].