Kuper brings wide range of skills to Illini

Kuper brings wide range of skills to Illini

CHAMPAIGN — Taylor Kuper started to come to this realization about two years ago: If she was going to play at the highest level of college volleyball, she’d likely have to make a position switch.  

Kuper was part of a dominant volleyball program at Olathe (Kan.) Northwest. She played four years of varsity, as the Ravens went a combined 160-16 and won consecutive Class 6A state championships in 2016 and 2017.  

Kuper was just as dominant individually as an outside hitter for Northwest. She finished her high school career with 1,224 kills, 925 digs and 264 aces. Her senior season with career highs in kills (472), digs (270) and aces (106) to go with another state title earned her Gatorade Player of the Year honors in Kansas. 

But a college volleyball career at the level Kuper wanted to reach was going to have to come more via her play in the back row rather than the front. The reason? She’s only 5 feet, 8 inches tall.

“I knew a couple years ago that if I wanted to play at the highest level that I would have to transition mostly to defense,” Kuper said. “Obviously, hitting in the front row with certain circumstances is possible for me if the lineup works out, but I can always go out of the back row. I can still do what I love, but I love defense and love being able to take away that swing from hitters.

“I love, I guess, proving people wrong, but my end goal was to play Big Ten volleyball. The odds of me playing front row were pretty slim — I knew that — but if I’m given the opportunity I’m going to take it.”

Kuper ultimately picked Illinois, which will play at 7 p.m. today against No. 21 Colorado in the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge in Seattle. Part of the appeal was playing in the Big Ten, of course, but Illini coach Chris Tamas didn’t close the door entirely on getting her some swings at outside hitter.

“She’s a volleyball player,” Tamas said. “That’s what we look for. To me, size doesn’t matter. You’ve got to be ready to play at any given moment. She’s doing great for us passing, and occasionally you might see her in the front row.”

“We’ve tried her on the left in practice, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we put her out there during a match to see what she can do against some bigger opponents than ourselves,” Illinois senior setter Jordyn Poulter added.

Kuper playing outside hitter for Illinois would be a rarity in the Big Ten. Just six other pin hitters in the conference are listed at shorter than 6-foot — five at 5-11 and Rutgers’ Sahbria McLetchie at 5-10.

Across the country in the other top conference, the Pac-12 has 18 pin hitters shorter than 6-foot. That includes three key rotation pieces in Oregon State’s Maddie Goings (5-9), Oregon’s Brooke Van Sickle (5-9) and Colorado’s Justine Spann (5-8). 

Kuper showed off her hops during Illinois’ preseason scrimmage earlier this month. The nature of the scrimmage, along with Beth Prince and Emily Hollowell both unavailable, gave Kuper the opportunity to play in the front row. 

As for how high Kuper can touch given most high major outside hitters can touch 10 feet or better? 

“I couldn’t give you a number,” she said. “Honestly, I test terribly. I think it’s all the adrenaline, but when we’re in a game setting and there’s a ball, I go get it.”

Kuper made her Illinois debut in the opening weekend of the season, playing in all 13 sets in the Illini’s three matches in Colorado. She averaged 1.15 digs per set playing in the back row exclusively, but also had one kill on three attacks out of the back row.

That back-row attack is something Poulter said can be a weapon if the passing isn’t at a high enough level to set the Illini middle blockers consistently. Jacqueline Quade is the primary target, but Kuper is in the mix, too.

“Just having that option out of the middle of the court helps keep the block steady and not cheating out to one pin or the other,” Poulter said. “It’s a good option.”

Kuper said she was able to adjust quickly in the first matches of her collegiate career. That came after a preseason where new Illinois assistant coach Alfee Reft reworked her game.

“Obviously, there were some butterflies, but as soon as the game got going, the competitiveness just took over and I just played volleyball,” Kuper said about her debut. “It’s what I do. … I’ve changed everything technically about my game. That was to be expected. It’s to be more efficient. I feel that the feedback I get is top notch, and I 110 percent trust (Reft). I trust him with changing anything I came in doing wrong. He’s changing the way I pass — the way we all pass — and it’s going to be better in the long run.”