Illini of the Week Sept. 21: Brandi Donnelly

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Illini of the Week Sept. 21: Brandi Donnelly

Illinois’ Brandi Donnelly digs the ball during the game against Purdue at George Huff Hall on Oct. 25.

Illinois’ Brandi Donnelly digs the ball during the game against Purdue at George Huff Hall on Oct. 25.

Illinois’ Brandi Donnelly digs the ball during the game against Purdue at George Huff Hall on Oct. 25.

Illinois’ Brandi Donnelly digs the ball during the game against Purdue at George Huff Hall on Oct. 25.

By James Boyd, Staff writer

Junior Brandi Donnelly stands at 5-foot-8. She doesn’t block a lot of balls or record many kills, but she is still an integral part of the Illinois volleyball team, offensively and defensively.

Illinois’ defensive specialist was named the Billiken Invitational Most Valuable Player after recording a team-high 37 digs and leading Illinois to a perfect 3-0 record and tournament title.

In her three years with the Illini, Donnelly has yet to miss a game and has been the starting libero ever since she stepped foot in Champaign.

Head coach Kevin Hambly said that her playing time and consistency shouldn’t catch anyone off guard. He mentioned that the two liberos who came before her, Jennifer Beltran and Ashley Edinger, started in every match as well.

“She’s really directing everything in the backcourt,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “She’s had her struggles too, but she has been there every time. It’s nice to have that position solidified.”

Hambly said that the physical aspects of Donnelly’s game have improved throughout her three years, but also mentioned that she’s taken a step forward from a mental perspective as well. Illinois’ head coach said that the libero has become one of the leaders of the team, and she isn’t afraid to hold her teammates accountable.

Three years ago, before she committed to play in the Big Ten, Donnelly couldn’t have pictured the success she is having now.

Coming out of high school, she was an outside hitter, and since most collegiate outside hitters are above six feet, she had to change her position.

“When I was in high school, I loved the feeling of getting a kill,” Donnelly said. “But now I love the feeling of taking away someone’s big kill. It was pretty weird (switching positions), but I came a semester early so I was able to learn the libero position.”

This wasn’t the first time Donnelly has had to adjust her game. At Williamsville High School, she was a two-sport athlete – playing softball and volleyball, so for three years she switched between swinging a bat and spiking a ball.

Donnelly currently holds the record for service aces, digs and kills at her former high school. During her junior year, she also led her softball team to a second-place finish in the Illinois 2A State Championships while setting a school record for single-season batting average. Her .445 batting average still stands today.

When it came time to choose which sport she would pursue in college, the decision came easily for Donnelly. For someone who dominated offensively as a third baseman at Williamsville, she hated batting practice.

But with volleyball it was the complete opposite.

“I just like how fast paced volleyball is and how every play is so different,” Donnelly said. “I just love the scramble plays and the diving plays. And I think that’s what keeps my love in it. I just don’t get tired of it.”

Sophomore Ali Bastianelli is one of the top blockers in the Big Ten. She is currently ranked second in total blocks behind Maryland’s Ashlyn MacGregor and also earned Billiken Invitational all-tournament honors. But the middle blocker’s recent success hasn’t made her forget about the importance of her libero.

“It’s great having Brandi back there,” Bastianelli said. “I know if I don’t close a block all the way or if there’s a smart hitter and she can make a shot, then I know Brandi’s back there ready to pick it up. She’s definitely the best defender on our team in the backcourt.”

During Donnelly’s freshman year, she recorded 575 digs – the second-most single-season digs in Illinois history. And as a junior, she already ranks within the top ten in school history for total career digs.

But even with all of her accolades and accomplishments, both past and present, Donnelly hasn’t been able to lead Illinois past the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament.

“I think it’s practicing and pulling through in those tight sets and really learning how to fight and win at the end of games. I think that’s what it comes down to at the end of the season.”

 

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