Criswell seeing increased playing time

Morganne Criswell’s high school career was full of accolades.

The former Lutheran School Association of Decatur (Ill.) and Illini Elite outside hitter was a four-time Under Armour AAU All-American, who committed to Illinois after her freshman year. She helped her school win four consecutive conference titles, was named to the all-state second team as a junior and was ranked No. 33 nationally as a senior by prepvolleyball.com.

But Criswell, now a junior at Illinois, hasn’t had the same opportunities that allowed her to blossom and become the decorated player she was in high school — until now.

In Criswell’s two years prior to this season, she managed to get into only 56 sets, accumulating 84 kills. Criswell has already played 40 sets this season, seeing time on the court in all but one match, and has garnered 68 kills. She also got her first two starts of the year this past weekend, setting career highs with 15 kills and 45 attempts in the Illini’s 3-0 win against Indiana.

“I guess (playing sparingly) was kind of hard because I wasn’t used to that role,” Criswell said, referring to her role as an offensive sparkplug off the bench. “I would say that now, at the beginning of this year, I was kind of used to it. (Head coach Kevin Hambly) told me that would be my role, so I had time to get acclimated and get used to it.”

Criswell attributes her expanded role to her willingness to diversify her skill set by improving her passing and blocking, two aspects of her game that previously hindered her from seeing extended periods on the court and allowing fellow outside hitter Ali Stark to spend more time on it.

“I think she just brings so much fire when she’s in,” sophomore outside hitter Jocelynn Birks said. “She’s just doing really, really well on the outside, scoring lots of points in clutch time, so I think she’s doing really great.”

Birks also pointed to Criswell’s positive energy as something that helps fire up the team. It’s tough not to notice Criswell when watching the Illini play, even when she’s not one of the six players on the floor. Criswell can be seen demonstratively stomping her feet or jumping in the air in exuberance every time the Illini win a point.

“I think (my energy) came from the fact that I was playing in spurts,” Criswell said. “My role was, ‘When I come in, to bring fire and energy,’ and I am a really energetic person, so I just try to relate what we have on the bench and take it to the court, so I just use that energy.”

Criswell is a former ballerina, and while she may no longer be the center of attention on stage wearing a pink leotard, she’s earned the chance to be the center of attention on a different type of stage, wearing orange and blue.

Blake can be reached at [email protected]