Illini volleyball finds defensive depth in freshman Davis

It was the second set of what would be yet another crushing defeat. The Illinois volleyball team had just given up four consecutive points to go down 20-11 to Nebraska in front of a flustered crowd at Huff Hall. After shaky back row defense through the first one and a half sets, head coach Kevin Hambly made a call he has made only once before: to sub in the sparingly used true freshman Danielle Davis.

The move paid off, as Davis immediately provided a figurative cushion to the powerful swings by the Cornhuskers. The freshman defensive specialist corrected the problem that plagued the Illini most in their 3-0 loss to Nebraska: the serve receive. Davis didn’t allow a single service ace past her the rest of the match, handling eight of eight serves in addition to six digs. The rest of the team combined for six receiving errors.

Per usual with Hambly and his players, Davis said everyone, regardless of class and experience, has a chance to get called into games.

“(Hambly) just tells us to always be ready,” Davis said. “He’s not going to not play freshmen. If we’re doing good in practice, we all know we could possibly get a shot at playing.

“As a freshman, I really wasn’t expecting to play as much because we’re a really strong team already, but, really, I’m just here to play for the team.” 

With senior libero Jennifer Beltran graduating after this season, both her and Hambly hinted that Davis could be the team’s next libero. No one on the team’s roster is listed as a libero.

“She’s definitely a candidate,” Beltran said. “It’s early to say right now, but she’s shown she can compete at this level and can compete well.”

While Hambly would not divulge into Davis’ future playing time, he did express high praise for what he saw in her play against the No. 10 team in the country.

“I thought Davis did great,” he said. “I thought she handled the ball really well. She’s been getting better every week and she earned a chance to get out there in practice. When people weren’t performing, I think she came out and did a wonderful job.”

Ball handling is not only a strength for Davis on the volleyball court, but also on the basketball court. At Central Catholic High School in Bloomington, Ill., Davis was a standout basketball player, starting all four years and scoring over 1,000 points in her high school career.

Davis’ basketball background allowed her to excel in volleyball as a 5-foot-9 outside hitter. She was able to accumulate 1,178 kills in four seasons and averaged 4.3 kills per set in her senior season. At Illinois, though, Davis will stick to her role as a defensive specialist. 

When asked about how basketball compared to volleyball, Davis said she had to choose early on in her high school career which sport to pursue, as she could not play both sports at the most elite level. 

“I love volleyball,” she said. “I love basketball, too, and it’s hard to give it up, but obviously volleyball is my passion and this is a great school to choose.” 

Davis isn’t the only connection the Illinois volleyball team has to basketball. Hambly was also an esteemed basketball player himself in his high school days. He still plays basketball occasionally to stay in shape, but said he’s a shell of his former self. 

“I was an OK player,” Hambly said with a smirk on his face. “I averaged 16 rebounds, but that was because I was taller than everyone else. I’ve scored 40 points in a game before.”

While the two sports require different attributes, Hambly said that a basketball background can aid in a player’s development some aspects of volleyball, specifically blocking. 

“You can make an argument that the timing of jumps for blocks is similar in both sports,” he said. “They’re completely different sports, though.”