A year after reaching the NCAA title match, the No. 7 Illinois volleyball team opens a new season Friday night at Dayton. College volleyball beat writer JEFF HUTH offers five storylines on the 2012 Illini.
Three for two
If the Illini didn't have the best outside hitter duo in the nation last season, they certainly were in the conversation. Now, Illinois will learn what life is like without All-Americans Colleen Ward and Michelle Bartsch. At least initially, UI coach Kevin Hambly plans to fill this two-position void by rotating a trio of players: sophomore Morganne Criswell and redshirt freshmen Jocelynn Birks and Ali Stark. Between them, the three have played in a total of 12 college matches — and 14 sets — so no position on this team is more unproven at the college level. "I think we'll use all of them all the time," Hambly said. "The advantage is that if someone's struggling, you can put someone else in. If two separate themselves, then two separate themselves as the year goes on. But right now, that's the plan." Hambly is counting on their talent overcoming their inexperience. Birks is a 6-foot-2 power hitter. "She's taller, longer, hits harder," Hambly said. "She can go up and thunder some balls." He calls Criswell the most dynamic of the three. "When she's right, she can score points in bunches and is very explosive." Hambly regards Stark as the most versatile. "She can do everything. Being a lefty, she brings a whole different dimension. She's got a lot of game and is probably the most refined of the three."
Settled at setter
The arrival of freshman Alexis Viliunas, the 2011 Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year, for a time had Hambly pondering the use of a two-setter attack. Ultimately, the UI coach decided to stick with a 5-1 alignment with senior setter Annie Luhrsen running the offense. Several factors went into the decision. Hambly wanted to retain the flexibility in switching personnel at outside hitter that he'll have with one setter. In a 6-2, Viliunas would have played all rotations and hit from the back row. "We looked at it and I don't like it," Hambly said. "Not because of the setters but just because of these young outsides. We don't know what we're going to get out of them and I need to have subs. I need to have kids that I can move around." Although Viliunas does have a hitting background, Hambly was reluctant to put her in that role at this stage of her college career, especially on a team with so many other young hitters. "She's just not ready to hit at the college level," he said. Another persuasive argument for sticking with the 5-1: Luhrsen, who ranked third in the Big Ten and 28th in the nation in assists per set last season, has made further strides in her game. "Annie came back playing the best she ever has," Hambly said.
Nothing is set in stone, but Hambly is leaning toward redshirting Viliunas this season. Of course, this is contingent on Luhrsen remaining injury-free and maintaining a high level of performance. If those things happen, it will allow Hambly to preserve a year of eligibility for Viliunas and extend her Illini playing career through 2016. There's no doubt that the UI coach is high on the three-time News-Gazette All-Stater's talent. He also knows it's the rare freshman who can hit the ground running in college at such a technically-precise and decision-heavy position as setter. "This is a hard adjustment, bigger than most people think," Hambly said. "And she'll be great. Just needs some time to figure it out." So the tentative plan is to not use Viliunas this weekend in the season-opening tournament at Dayton. Hambly sounded more certain about his 2012 plans for two other incoming freshmen. Julia Conard, a preferred walk-on who will go on scholarship for the 2014-15 academic year, can expect to see playing time as a defensive specialist. Maddie Mayers, a 6-4 middle blocker, is likely to redshirt barring injuries to starters Erin Johnson and Anna Dorn.
Stay a while
Hambly has a pretty persuasive sales pitch in hand whenever he's in the market to fill a staff opening: Come to the UI and quickly become a head coach; elsewhere, of course. After each of the past two seasons, an Illini assistant left for a head coaching job. Kent Miller, a two-year UI assistant, moved on to take over the top job at Saint Louis. His successor, David Kniffin, departed in July to become head coach of the NCAA defending champion Cal Irvine men's program. Under the circumstances, few would blame Hambly if he's eager for his newest aide, Dan Conners, to remain at least three years — as the two discussed when Conners was interviewed for the vacancy. "I hope he sticks around for five years," Hambly said with a laugh. "But if a good opportunity arises, I don't know. If something like that pops up for Dan in the next year — or if it's (UI assistant) Jen (Flynn Oldenburg) — I don't want to hold somebody back from going to a place that's their dream." Conners previously coached for two of the game's top programs. From 2006-10, he assisted legendary UCLA coach Andy Banachowski and his successor, Mike Sealy (whose Bruins defeated the Illini in the 2011 NCAA title match). Last season, Conners was recruiting and defensive coordinator on John Cook's Nebraska staff. The Huskers led the Big Ten in opponent hitting percentage. "He's got a great knowledge of the game; he's got a great pedigree," Hambly said. The UI coach several times has publicly acknowledged Illini athletic director Mike Thomas' role in making Conners' hiring possible by rewarding the program's success with a bigger budget. According to the UI, Conners will make $70,000 per year, a raise of $10,000 from Kniffen's salary. "I was able to be more competitive," Hambly said.
Uproar probably is too strong a word, but some highly vocal members of Illini Nation took great offense when Illinois was ranked fifth in the Big Ten coaches' preseason poll. Considering that the Illini drew the No. 7 spot in the preseason national poll, the disparity, not unexpectedly, drew a strong reaction. Except from Hambly. Since being named UI head coach four years ago, Hambly has taken a consistent stance on the importance of polls, particularly preseason ones. They're not. "For me, all I care about is can we make the (NCAA) tournament and then win the tournament, (at least) make a run," he said again this week. "You lose two All-American outsides, I think the assumption is you're not going to be as good. So I wasn't surprised by (No.) 5. But does that mean that where we're going to finish there? That's not a foregone conclusion." One year after his Illini tied for second place in the Big Ten, Hambly does foresee a tougher version of the conference in 2012. Fellow voters in the AVCA national poll seemingly agree, with four Big Ten teams in the top nine and three others in the Top 25. In addition, a high percentage of the league's top players return. Of the 15 players selected to the 2011 All-Big Ten team, 11 are back. Half of the six honorable-mention picks, too. "I think it's tougher for sure," Hambly said. "Penn State's older. Nebraska ... essentially they lost one player. Indiana gets a couple players back that were injured and they're going to be more competitive. Purdue returns basically everybody. Wisconsin returns basically everybody and they were nasty to play. You go down the line and the ones that lost the most were us and Michigan State."