Illini volleyball’s Conard steadily improving

Julia Conard hasn’t started a match this year, but the sophomore defensive specialist has started to raise her level of play for the No. 16 Illinois volleyball team.

Conard saw limited action on the court for the first few weeks of the season, playing in just nine of the team’s first 19 sets. She didn’t even see the floor in the Illini’s opening two games against No. 17 Florida State and Long Beach State.

Now, Conard has cemented herself as a key piece on the team’s back row. In what was the toughest series of the season up to date last weekend, Conard earned the right to play in every set against some of the nation’s top competition in the Illini Classic. Conard played a key role in all 14 sets against No. 18 Arizona State, No. 3 Washington and No. 6 Texas, the defending national champions.

“I really enjoyed being out there,” Conard said. “Any chance I get, I’m just out there to make plays. … I play better when I’m more involved, which I was, and it was just a lot of fun being able to contribute as much as I did, and I hope I can continue.”

In those matches, Conard accumulated 32 of her 45 digs on the season, including a season-high 14 digs against Texas. She also recorded double-digit digs against the Longhorns and the Huskies. Conard ranks third on the team (amongst non-liberos) in digs per set with a 1.96 average and fourth in total digs with 45, despite playing in fewer sets than those ranked above and below her.

“This year (Conard) is calming down a bit more and understanding how we play a little bit more,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “She’s doing a good job.”

When asked if Conard would be trusted in more big time situations this year, Hambly affirmed that he has always had faith in her play and that she would be used whenever the team faces a potent offensive front row.

Conard saw time in 26 of 30 matches last season, making six starts. She never received consistent playing time, though, but she now looks for that to change this season.

“I think there was a huge difference (in my play this year),” Conard said. “I think ‘Stuff Huff’ was when I noticed it most because I remember in my freshman year being just shaky and nervous. Coming out here in my sophomore year, I noticed a complete difference. I was having a good time, I wasn’t as nervous, I was relaxed and it was a lot more fun.”

Blake can be reached at [email protected]