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O’Brien comfortably settles into new team role as libero

Illinois+defensive+specialist+Morgan+O%E2%80%99Brien+celebrates+during+the+match+against+Northern+Iowa%0Aat+Huff+Hall+on+Friday.+The+Illini+won+3-0.
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O’Brien comfortably settles into new team role as libero

Illinois defensive specialist Morgan O’Brien celebrates during the match against Northern Iowa
at Huff Hall on Friday. The Illini won 3-0.

Illinois defensive specialist Morgan O’Brien celebrates during the match against Northern Iowa at Huff Hall on Friday. The Illini won 3-0.

Austin Yattoni

Illinois defensive specialist Morgan O’Brien celebrates during the match against Northern Iowa at Huff Hall on Friday. The Illini won 3-0.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois defensive specialist Morgan O’Brien celebrates during the match against Northern Iowa at Huff Hall on Friday. The Illini won 3-0.

By Meghan Rest, Assistant Sports Editor

The 2018 Illinois volleyball team looks almost identical to the 2017 squad, except for one daunting difference.

Senior libero Brandi Donnelly made her final appearance as an Illini last fall during the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament, and since her departure, the name penciled next to libero has been nothing but a big question mark.

During her four years at the University, Donnelly was a unique cornerstone in the Illini’s defense. She has the second-most career digs with 2,044 and the second-highest digs-per-set average in the program’s history. After graduation, there wasn’t a clear indication as to who would fill her shoes.

That is, until this fall, when sophomore Morgan O’Brien glided into the position. Formerly, O’Brien played as a defensive specialist, helping to compose the rising force that is Illinois’ back row. According to O’Brien, however, the transition to libero has been natural.

“I played libero my whole life until last year,” O’Brien said. “It feels like I’m back in a good spot. I’m learning a ton; Alfee (Reft) brings a huge side to the game and he’s always teaching me new stuff. We keep building and then build on top of it.”

Last year, O’Brien played in 31 of the Illini’s matches, starting 14. During the 2017 season, O’Brien also logged 229 digs as a DS and posted a 1.99 digs-per-set average.

Although this year, O’Brien has over half the numbers of digs she coined last year in almost a third of the matches.

Before the season began, head coach Chris Tamas said there was no clarity about who would inherit the libero position.

“You know, you bring in lots of people; Taylor Kuper was maybe in the conversation,” Tamas said. “We’re always battling for that position in general. We’ve got a slew of defensive specialists that push Morgan every day, so it’s not always decided like that. She’s earned the role.”

While O’Brien is wearing the libero jersey, she’s in good company with the rest of the back row, including freshman DS Taylor Kuper. With only 11 games under her belt, the Kansas-native has started off the season strong thanks to preseason advice from O’Brien.

“I feel like she’s really taken me under her wing,” Kuper said. “She’s given me so much information, especially in the summer when we weren’t working with coaches. She would tell me things that coaches like to see or where they have their middle back defense just because it is a little different than club and high school.”

While Tamas said O’Brien has made strides as a libero, it isn’t just her who’s improved. The Illini’s 11-0 record wouldn’t be possible without the team functioning as a whole, according to O’Brien.

“It’s obviously them making the points. But I know I’m in the back and if I’m not passing, then they can’t make those points,” O’Brien said. “It all goes into being a team.”

@Meghan_Rest

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