After landing Top 7-rated recruiting classes each of the past two years, Kevin Hambly wasted no time Wednesday bracing Illini volleyball fans for a more modest ranking.
“Not because they’re not talented kids, but just cause we only have two scholarships to fill,” the third-year head coach said.
On the first day of the national letter of intent signing period, Hambly was able to publicly comment on his latest recruiting class for the first time: setter Alexis Viliunas of LaGrange Lyons and middle blocker Maddie Mayers of Fort Wayne, Ind.
It is Hambly’s smallest class yet, but it follows two classes that brought in a total of seven players. For the Illini coaching staff, the heavy lifting in recruiting had previously taken place. Working with the limited number of scholarships his program had available for the Class of 2012, Hambly focused on meeting two specific future needs.
Like bringing in an heir apparent to current junior setter Annie Luhrsen. And lining up a 6-foot-4 middle blocker to eventually replace current junior starter Erin Johnson.
“This is more of a need-based class for us,” he said. “We looked at what we needed, and we got the first two kids that we offered and the kids that we wanted.
“We’re really excited about the class, what they add to the two classes we had ahead of them. I feel like it’s going to keep us nationally competitive for the next several years.”
Actually, there’s a third member of this recruiting class. More than a year ago, libero/defensive specialist Julia Conard of West Chicago made a verbal commitment to the Illini, accepting a three-year scholarship offer that would take effect beginning in her sophomore year. As a current non-scholarship athlete, Conard did not sign a letter of intent Wednesday, and Hambly is forbidden by NCAA rules from talking about her until she begins classes at the UI.
This class can be considered even larger when you take into account that two current freshmen are being redshirted and will retain their four years of eligibility.
Hambly decided before the start of this season to redshirt outside hitter Jocelynn Birks and has stuck to that plan. When right-side hitter Ali Stark suffered a broken finger early in the season, she had appeared in only three matches and still met the criteria to apply for a medical redshirt.
Thus, what was announced Wednesday as a recruiting class of two is, for all practical purposes, a class of five.
While Viliunas clearly projects as a starter in 2013, Hambly is keeping all options open with the setter for next season — from the unlikely scenario that she wins the starting job from Luhrsen ... to using a two-setter offense ... to including her in the rotation as a front-row player ... to redshirting.
“She was recruited to hit by a lot of schools,” Hambly said of the 6-foot-1 Viliunas. “She’s an all-around player.”
Ranked 34th in prepvolleyball.com’s list of Senior Aces, Viliunas was a four-year starter for Lyons and set the school career assist record with more than 2,100.
During her final three high school seasons, Viliunas helped Lyons place second in the Class 4A state tournament, win it all in 2010 and, with a graduation-depleted team, reach the super-sectionals this fall.
In club ball, Viliunas played on 1st Alliance teams that twice finished third at national tournaments.
“If you look at her body of work, she knows how to win,” Hambly said. “I love her demeanor. I love her leadership. I think she’s going to be a tremendous asset to our program.”
Such an asset that if Viliunas can’t crack the lineup as a freshman, he’s inclined to preserve that year of eligibility.
“I can also see if she doesn’t win the (starting) battle, because we think so highly of her, that maybe she redshirts,” Hambly said. “We want to make sure we get the most out of her time.”
In his tenure as UI head coach, Hambly has not yet utilized a two-setter offense. However, in 2008 as the top assistant to then-Illini coach Don Hardin, an Illinois team that advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 ran a 6-2 attack with Lizzie Bazzetta and Hillary Haen as co-setters.
“I think it was the right decision for that team,” Hambly said.
The Illini coach indicated Wednesday he would consider a similar setup with Luhrsen and Viliunas next season, particularly if current right-side hitter Liz McMahon has yet to grow her game into an all-rotations attacker and remains strictly a front-row player.
“It just depends on the personnel,” Hambly said of running a 6-2 next year. “You have to have the personnel to pull it off.”
Mayers was No. 76 in prepvolleyball.com’s Senior Aces list, a ranking Hambly questioned.
“I think she’s underrated as an athlete,” said the UI coach, “She looks more like 6-5 to me; really long arms; puts up a great block.”
Mayer was selected to the All-Northeast Indiana first team the past two seasons and hit .500 as a senior for Bishop Dwenger High.
Hambly likened her to redshirt freshman middle blocker Anna Dorn when the current UI starter was a high school senior.
“She’s got a lot of potential,” Hambly said of Mayers. “She’s going to need some time to develop. I think she’s going to end up being a great blocker; potentially could be an exceptional attacker.”