Beltran opens up, thrives throughout 4 years on Illinois volleyball team

When Jennifer Beltran arrived at Illinois four years ago she was, in her own words, “really, really shy.”

Four years later, the senior libero is not only closing in on the Illinois volleyball team’s all-time digs record, she’s doing so as one of Illinois’ most vocal leaders.

“She’s a great left back defensive player and a great libero,” Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said. “You have to be a leader of the defense, and she was the leader of the defense for the first three years and now, this year, she’s the team leader and she’s developed into one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around. She’s a very vocal leader, and when she talks everyone listens, staff included. I‘m proud of her development that way as much as anything, and I’m proud of who she’s become as a person and as a student. Very few kids have made the gains she has in those two aspects.”

Beltran is currently 22 digs away from tying Ashley Edinger for the Illinois school record. Beltran’s 21 digs last weekend against Michigan and Michigan State helped her pass Indiana’s Courtney Cox for 13th all-time in the Big Ten.

Beltran, a native of Reseda, Calif., was initially nervous about even looking at schools outside her home state. She said she was “stuck” on either going to UCLA or USC but decided to look into Illinois after talking to Hambly, who had been around Beltran at USA High Performance, a volleyball camp for the nation’s top junior volleyball players.

“I was like: ‘I’ll give it a try, I’ll go take a visit, why not,’” Beltran said. “The very first time I came here, I honestly fell in love with it. Everything about it from the school to the program to the fans, it was just everything I wanted and what I was looking for.”

Beltran was sold on becoming an Illini in part because of how comfortable she felt around everyone involved with Illinois volleyball.

“I definitely felt comfortable with Kevin,” Beltran said. “He’s been there all this time for me. Besides what you see in the gym, outside he’ll talk to us just like you’re a normal person. He wants to know about your life, and he wants you to be successful. So he’s there guiding you in that right direction, which he said he was going to do, and he’s been doing it.”

Hambly said he talked to Beltran’s mom after she had committed and reassured her that everything was going to be good and that he was going to take good care of her daughter.

In her first year on campus, Beltran said she didn’t talk very much, but that changed with the help of her upperclassmen teammates.

“My teammates would say all the time, ‘Oh, she doesn’t talk at all.’ I was honestly really, really shy,” Beltran said. “But players like Laura (DeBruler) and Hillary (Haen) and E.J. (Erin Johnson) were always there. All my teammates were really good about welcoming me to the group and making me feel comfortable because I started right away, so that alone is a lot to handle. So knowing that I had people who I could trust and who had my back was awesome.”

As a sophomore Beltran helped the Illini make history, as she was a major part of the first Illinois team to make it to the NCAA Championship game. Beltran called the experience both exciting and awesome, and, although the Illini didn’t win it all, she still said it was her favorite experience at Illinois.

Next came the “emotional roller coaster” that was the 2012 season. Beltran said it was extremely tough, especially with the way things piled on top of each other, but it made her a stronger person and a better player.

As she grew older, Beltran developed into both a better player and a more vocal teammate. Now, she says she tries to do what Johnson, Haen and DeBruler did for her.

“I try to help especially girls in my position like Danielle (Davis) or even Jules (Julia Conard), who’s a sophomore now,” Beltran said. “If they have questions I answer them, and I do my best to pass on to them what got passed on to me when I first got here.”

With only 16 more regular season games to go, Beltran knows time in her senior season is winding down, a fact that sometimes catches her off-guard.

“It’s crazy now there’s just two left,” said Beltran of her and fellow senior Courtney Abrahamovich. “We’ve both done a lot of growing in our time here, and it’s crazy because this past Saturday, when we were at Michigan, we were standing there during warm-ups, and I was like ‘Court, this is that last time we’re gonna be here.’ Sometimes we even forget about it. It’s crazy to sit down and look back at everything we’ve gone through; it’s just been amazing so far.”

After the season, Beltran sees her future as up in the air. She said she would enjoy playing volleyball professionally or coaching, something Hambly said she’d excel at.

“I would take her as a student assistant like I’ve taken Erin (Johnson) in a second,” Hambly said. “We’ve talked about that a little bit, and it’s going to be a matter of what’s the best fit for her. I could see her being a great coach. She understands the game; she understands the technical aspect of it. If you’re a libero, you have to become a master of your craft in a lot of ways and to become a master of your craft, you have to know every nuance of passing and every nuance of defense. I think she’s still learning more and more, but she could do a nice job of helping young ones develop.”

Wherever Beltran goes in life, she will always be able to look back and see the legacy she built for herself at Illinois — a legacy that will likely include more digs than any other Illini in history but will encompass so much more than that.

“When I first decided to come here one of the biggest things that drove me here was that I wanted to go somewhere to make history,” Beltran said. “I didn’t want to go somewhere where history was already there — schools who had already been to the Final Four and had won titles already. I wanted to be a part of something different. Something people were going to remember forever.”

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