Sept. 14 volleyball chat

Sept. 14 volleyball chat

Friday, September 14, 2012 - 11:00am

What's up with all the Top 25 teams on the schedule? Should a sub-.500 school like Illinois still be ranked? When will Kevin Hambly push the panic button? Ask Jeff Huth, our volleyball beat writer, anything on your mind. He's chatting at 11 a.m. Friday.

Jeff Huth wrote on September 14, 2012 at 11:09 am
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Welcome to our weekly chat on Illini volleyball. We'll get started in a few minutes. Kevin Hambly's team is in Austin, Texas, this weekend for the Texas Invitational, starting with tonight;s match against No. 6 Texas. This weekend also marks the end of the preconference schedule for Illinois and the rest of the Big Ten.

 

Jeff Huth

 

goiilini wrote on September 14, 2012 at 11:09 am

I doubt the middles in the team are good at only that position.  The same with the right side hitter, Liz.  These girls are tall and strong.  Has Hambly considered positioning them on the LS or opposite?  Ward looked angry and determined in court all the time, which I believed really elevated her game.  Are any of the girls like that this season?

Jeff Huth wrote on September 14, 2012 at 11:09 am
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goillini:

If you move Erin Johnson and/or Anna Dorn from the middle, who would take their place? Backing them up are a pair of true freshmen, Maddie Mayers and walk-on Kathryn Polkoff. Barring injury to the starters, Kevin Hambly appears intent on redshirting them.

Liz McMahon is more versatile, but the 6-foot-6 sophomore's block against opponents' left sides is a major plus for Illinois. Hambly entered the season with the idea of playing McMahon in all rotations, but quickly backed off. In her second college season, she still hasn't progressed to the point to be able to handle the back row at a level the Illini need. At this point, she's best suited for right side.

When I talked to Hambly earlier this week, the subject of the Illini block did come up. Statistically, Illinois is among the Big Ten's best in that area, ranking fourth in blocks per set at a little over 2.5. But Hambly is far from statisfied with his team's block on the left side. Illini fans saw why, in particular, in the Sept. 1 home match against Iowa State, when Cyclones' right-side hitter Mackenzie Bigbee was a load (25 kills, .409 attack percentage).

Bottom line, I think Hambly's options on moving personnel around are limited.

Your question about Ward is an interesting one, because off the court she was pretty soft-spoken and low key. On the court, however, she was a warrior and it often showed in demeanor and facial expressions.

Setter Annie Luhrsen is one current player who comes to mind as someone who displays her competitive nature in the same way. But I would caution not to read too much into players who maybe aren't as demonstrative. That doesn't mean they aren't burning to win every point.

 

goiilini wrote on September 14, 2012 at 11:09 am

Ali Stark plays really good defense. When do you think is she going to see front row action next?  WOuldnt she be effective on the RS too?

Jeff Huth wrote on September 14, 2012 at 11:09 am
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goillini:

Kevin Hambly said this week that Stark has recovered enough from the ankle sprain she suffered in the season opener to be used again as an outside hitter. After missing two matches, she returned to action as a defensive specialist (which speaks to your point about her defense). Stark definitely could be effective as a right side, but Illinois is set there with a preseason All-Big Ten player, Liz McMahon.

Billibob wrote on September 14, 2012 at 11:09 am

Hi Jeff,

I hope this question is moot after a 3-0 win record this weekend.  But here it is:  why aren’t we doing better this season than we have so far?  My contribution is to challenge some possible answers to this question.  1) We’re a young team, still trying to settle down.  It’s a different team, but we still have five superb players at their positions:  Beltran, Dorn, McMahan, Luhrsen, and Johnson, all of whom have post-season experience.  Birks has stepped up with confidence and power since the Spring game against the Chinese team.  Amazingly, at least in my opinion, she’s shown herself already to be a worthy successor to Ward/Bartsch.  Why are the “youth” and “jitters” not being overcome by solidity/confidence of the players at the other positions?  Why does everyone seem shaky, especially when matches go to the fifth set?  2) The schedule is too hard.  I go with Coach Hambly on this.  He projected that we would play better than we have and scheduled real competition; we should have been able to beat at least some of the teams to which we have lost.  Also, except for the first weekend, when we were blindsided by Dayton, Coach has had the team ready for the first game each weekend.  (Hopefully this will be true later today at Texas.)  Why are we faltering in the second match of the weekend when the first win should provide confidence?  3) Too many service errors.  In matches we have lost, especially Iowa State Match 2, this was true.  But the question is why?  Why has it cascaded instead of being reversed (in those specific matches) by our serving specialists and experienced players?  4) Stark has been hurt.  This explains part of the first weekend, but we beat the third opponent of that weekend without her, and she has made great defensive contributions the last two weekends.  Criswell is doing fine in her stead in the front row.

Beyond this, in strategic terms, I thought Coach Hambly’s move during the second weekend to play strong back row players throughout the matches and give up a little on the back row attack was a brilliant stroke.  It improved the passing immediately and made possible the wins we have earned.  So I’m curious to hear what you all think is a good answer to this question.

Jeff Huth wrote on September 14, 2012 at 11:09 am
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Billibob:

I think what we're learning is how valuable Colleen Ward and Michelle Bartsch were to this team last season. It's natural to focus on the formidable attack they provided, but each made critical contributions beyond kills, particularly with their defense in the back row. The void they left in the back row is significant, and even as Birks and Criswell have certainly had their moments and their matches as hitters, each is still adjusting to what the college game demands when it comes to passing.

After the loss to Iowa State, Liz McMahon talked in the postmatch press conference about the responsibility that Ward and Bartsch assumed last year and how it's now apparent what a big burden each placed on their shoulders, particularly when a critical kill or big block or pass was needed.

As the season progresses, Hambly is hoping the young outside hitters make progress with all aspects of their game.

Regarding the schedule, I think this is how Hambly views the current status of his program -- that he should schedule tough in the preconference to prepare his teams for the challenges ahead in the Big Ten race and, more importantly, in the NCAA tournament. I don't think he'll ever shy away from a strong nonconference schedule.

The subject of service errors came up from time to time last season, too, and Hambly has  indicated he does get some grief from fans about it. HIs stance is that teams at this level must be aggressive with serving. If not, it's too easy for the opponents to stay in system, and that makes it that much harder for the UI defense to stop them. When you are aggressive behind the service line, the errors can pile up in certain matches.

Finally, Hambly has said repeatedly that this team must improve its passing, and that remains a work in progress. If it remains inconsistent throughout the season, I suspect Illinois' record will be up and down, too.

lmaran wrote on September 14, 2012 at 11:09 am

I am looking to the Big Ten portion of this season. Given your projection of progress of this young but talented Illinois team, how do we stack up against the Nebraskas, Penn States and Minnies?

Jeff Huth wrote on September 14, 2012 at 11:09 am
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Imaran:

I'm with you on looking forward to the Big Ten race. With seven Big Ten teams in the latest AVCA Top 25 poll, (and two others receiving votes on at least two ballots), this again stacks up as a powerhouse conference. With three teams in thecurrent top 10, the league's best are among the nation's top tier, too.

The first half of the schedule includes home matches against No. 1 Nebraska, No. 4 Penn State and No. 10 Minnesota. Tough challenges, but being at Huff with a supportive crowd helps.

I think the key for this Illini team is to simply keep improving and making progress. By the second half of the conference race, we should be seeing a more competitive Illinois team. The challenge, however, will be that six of those final 10 matches are on the road. We'll find out what kind of road warriors the Illini are then.

 

MattK61 wrote on September 14, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Assume the bomb threat at Texas is false and the teams do play tonight, but maybe at different locations. Talk a bit about how this disrupts the pre-match preparation. Also, what's the effect if they have to move to another location -- say, a high school?

Jeff Huth wrote on September 14, 2012 at 12:09 pm
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MattK61:

I have yet to hear back from Kevin Hambly about this (got his voice mail). Given the timing of the bomb threat, it certainly seems possible that the campus would be reopened in time for tonight's match. But I don't have enough information at this point to know what will happen. I doubt Texas would move its tournament to a high school, however.

MattK61 wrote on September 14, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Ali Stark can play front row again and Kevin says she's 80%. With three matches in two days, does she still play front row sparingly this weekend, to take it easy on her physically and with Criswell presumably being a more effective attacker at this point?

Jeff Huth wrote on September 14, 2012 at 12:09 pm
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MattK 61:

Because Ali Stark has been cleared to play outside hitter doesn't necessarily mean she will see a lot of action there this weekend. If Birks and Criswell are getting the job done, Stark might only see sparing time there. If either is faltering, it's more likely Stark is used there.

Three matches in two days seemingly will put Stark's ankle to the test. But Hambly did say this week that he put her recovery at about 80 percent. That's enough to allow her to do the jumping required of an outside hitter.

Stark was remarkably good as an outside hitter in the Illini Alumni Event intrasquad scrimmage. She clearly has the talent to be an impact player at the position.

 

Jeff Huth wrote on September 14, 2012 at 12:09 pm
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I just heard back from Kevin Hambly. The Texas campus is scheduled to reopen at noon and tonight's matches will be played, he said. It's possible, he said, that the schedule for tonight's matches might be moved back. Illinois and Texas are scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. but it could be later if the first match between Cincinnati and Cincinnati is delayed from its original starting time. Hambly said the Illini won't have access to the gym in which the tournament is held for a prematch practice, but it will be able to utilize an annex gym on campus for that purpose.

RichardfromClinton wrote on September 14, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Hi Jeff!  What are the keys to success this weekend? What does Coach H want to see improving so we can beat the high-caliber teams we see every week?  Thanks

Jeff Huth wrote on September 14, 2012 at 12:09 pm
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RichardfromClinton:

Kevin Hambly said this week that Texas and Penn State are the two most talented teams in the nation, so tonight is a very difficult assignment. The Longhorns are the best blocking team in the nation, so Illinois will need to figure out a way to cope with that. The best way to do so is to get great passing so setter Annie Luhrsen has plenty of options and can spread the ball around and keep the Texas block guessing. I think if Illinois plays at the level it showed in its 3-0 sweep of Iowa State on Aug. 31 it will make this a competitive match and possibly even pull off an upset. To do that, however, the Illini will need to be clicking on all cylinders.

Jeff Huth wrote on September 14, 2012 at 12:09 pm
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Looks like we've run out of questions so we'll wrap this up. To MattK61, there seems to have been a computer glitch (probably my fault) on an earlier question you had posted. I answered it, but both question and answer seem to have completely disappeared. I apologize, and if you would like to submit the same question next week, please feel free.

As always, thanks for the questions and the interest.

Talk to you next Friday.

Jeff Huth