Record-breaking libero possesses consistency that rest of team lacks

Senior libero Jennifer Beltran didn’t even know what she accomplished during Saturday’s sweep of Indiana until head coach Kevin Hambly informed her after the match.

Midway through the opening set Saturday, Beltran recorded dig No. 1,922 of her career, passing former Illini Ashley Edinger for most digs of all time in program history. Beltran finished the match with 11 digs to place her 10th all-time in the Big Ten with 1,929 digs.

“To be honest, I had no idea how close I was to it or that I had done it,” Beltran said. “Of course it’s an honor to be a part of history, but, like I said, every time I’m out there I’m doing my job and doing what I have to do for my team and getting us as many opportunities as I can by making plays in the back row.”

Hambly said Beltran set a high standard for the libero position.

“We’ve been fortunate to have some good liberos over the years,” Hambly said. “For Jen to break that record, it’s a pretty big deal.

“She’s a great player, she’s been a great libero for us, and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to coach her.”

Although Beltran is a model of consistency, the Illini as a whole have not been this season. Illinois dropped three consecutive sets Friday against No. 20 Purdue after winning a tightly contested opening set, by scores of 29-31, 25-23, 25-17, 25-23. The Illini were no match for Purdue junior Val Nichol, who turned in a complete performance with 14 kills, 23 assists, nine digs and four blocks. Sophomore outside hitter Jocelynn Birks kept the Illini alive offensively, leading both teams with 22 kills on 60 attempts for a .267 hitting percentage.

A lack of execution in key moments late against Purdue led to Illinois’ downfall, Beltran and Hambly said. The Illini were able to correct this problem in the following match against Indiana, sweeping the Hoosiers 25-22, 25-23, 25-20. The win leaves Illinois 7-9 overall and 3-3 in the conference.

“I think (Alexis Viliunas) did a really good job of distributing the ball to all of our hitters,” junior outside hitter Morganne Criswell said. “A lot of times we depend on just one or two hitters, which sometimes gets us into trouble. I think (Viliunas) made great decisions at key points.”

Viliunas dished out 33 assists against Indiana, which allowed five Illini to get five kills or more. Birks led the way once again offensively, finishing with 15 kills on 32 attempts for a .406 hitting percentage.

At the midway point of the season, the Illini have yet to string together more than two wins in a row, doing it only once this season in the beginning of September. Criswell still believes the team is heading in the right direction despite the frequent weekend splits. Hambly said the combination of a tough schedule and inconsistent play can be blamed for the team’s middling record thus far.

Blake can be reached at [email protected]