Birks’ offseason training paying dividends for volleyball

With Jocelynn Birks, there’s more than meets the eye.

To her teammates, she’s a both a teacher and a friend. To Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly she’s a “really good outside hitter,” with the potential to be the best in the history of Illinois volleyball, and to the fans of Illinois volleyball she’s one of the most electrifying players on the court.

Birks, a sophomore outsider hitter, is coming off an impressive home opener weekend in which she finished with 52 kills, 31 digs and 3 aces in three games against No. 18 Arizona State, No. 3 Washington and No. 6 Texas.

“She’s what we’ve had for a long time when we’ve had good teams like with Colleen Ward and Michelle Bartsch and all those guys,” Hambly said. “That’s a really good long line of six rotation outside hitters and she’s another one of those guys, and she could potentially be the best of all of them.”

After notching her 14th career 20-kill game and both her 14th and 15th career double-doubles this weekend Hambly said that Birks can “do it all” on the court.

“She just understands what it takes to be a college volleyball player and she’s prepared herself for that all offseason,” Hambly said. “This year she’s in great shape, she’s moving better, she’s passing better, she’s just better in every aspect and she’s just mentally and physically prepared to play the position.”

Birks redshirted her academic freshman year in 2011, and was awarded both an All-Big Ten honorable mention and a Big Ten All-Freshman nomination in her first year competing for the Illini last season. After an offseason of incredibly hard work, Birks has come back to lead Illinois in scoring this season.

“I think my freshman year redshirting, it was good to be able to see everything happening and not have to be in the game,” Birks said. “That was a lot of learning from watching. Once I actually got on the court it’s completely different. Last year was a lot of figuring out what I needed to do. Since then, the team and I have worked really, really hard through the spring and the entire summer to get to where we are and be the team and players we want to be.”

Off the court, Birks is earning a degree in elementary education, but on the court, initially at least, Birks was the one being taught by former teammate and fellow outside hitter Michelle Bartsch.

“Having her as a teammate, and then again as a coach my freshman year, she was always really helpful,” Birks said. “She had my back and knew when I needed someone to talk to, and she gave me advice.”

Entering her third year on the team, Birks’ role has changed from frightened freshman to teacher, helping younger girls on the team in the volleyball maturation process.

“I try,” Birks said when asked whether she helps the younger girls on the team. “With (freshman outside hitter) Michelle (Strizak), she’s really helpful to me from the bench so we have a good dialogue going and I think that will be really helpful for her once she gets on the court to know things that are happening in the game and to be able to pick that out. In general we all just teach each other.”

Sophomore defensive specialist Julia Conard echoed what makes Birks such a standout. It isn’t just her talent, but her personality.

“She’s a special player and a special person and I love her to death,” she said.

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