Bastianelli living up to the hype

Bastianelli living up to the hype

 CHAMPAIGN — A golf cart ride across campus during Ali Bastianelli’s official visit at Illinois gave Johanna Bangert time to talk with the future Illini’s parents.

Bangert’s discussion with Joan and Gregory Bastianelli hit on some generic topics — like the transition from high school volleyball to the Big Ten — but the former All-American middle blocker who returned to Illinois on Kevin Hambly’s staff as director of operations had something specific in mind to share. One day, she told the Bastianellis, their daughter would break her career total blocks record.

Talk about prescient.

Bastianelli delivered five blocks during Illinois’ sweep of Northwestern last Saturday night, giving her 656 for her career — three more than Bangert’s 653 between 2007 and 2010.

She’ll look to add to the total this weekend in a pair of Top 10 Big Ten road showdowns, first at 7 p.m. today when No. 7 Illinois (15-2, 4-2 Big Ten) plays at No. 3 Minnesota (12-2, 6-0) and at 7 p.m. on Saturday when the Illini play at No. 8 Wisconsin (11-3, 4-2).  

“It’s cool to actually see that come to fruition where she’s really become an amazing volleyball player and college athlete,” said Bangert, who reached out to congratulate Bastianelli in the days before she broke the record. “She’s long and athletic. Tall, but super fast. I certainly did not have the physicality or height Ali has. If you combine that physicality with her height and speed, it was just very clear she had the physical capabilities to do it.”

Bastianelli had 167 blocks her freshman season, which put her ahead of Bangert’s pace immediately. Four hundred more the next two seasons saw the 6-foot-3 Michigan native start her senior season just 86 total blocks behind Bangert.

“I like to think I work hard, and my teammates work really hard,” said Bastianelli, who credited her teammates more than once. “It’s really nice they’re all really supportive of this. I think they were maybe a little bit more excited for me when I got it. I didn’t really react. I know looking back the bench went crazy. It means a lot. This group of girls is really something special.”

Bangert was on staff at Illinois through Bastianelli’s sophomore season. What she saw early in Bastianelli’s career simply reinforced her notion that her record was bound to be broken.

“I think your freshman year you try to survive the Big Ten,” Bangert said. “Definitely, she was raw, but she did great even her freshman year.”

Bastianelli said the game has slowed down for her since that first season. She admits to being overwhelmed at times by the speed of the Big Ten.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, everyone’s a good hitter,’” Bastianelli said. “I think now that I’m a senior I know the game and I know the teams a little bit more and what to expect from every team. I think I’m seeing the game a lot better.”

Illinois coach Chris Tamas had the challenge of trying to game plan against Bastianelli those first two seasons as an assistant coach at Nebraska.

Her abilities to read opposing hitters stood out to Tamas even when she was a freshman.

“She was good from day one,” he said. “(The game plan was) to make sure we try and stay in system as much as possible and make it difficult for her to read. Even then, all the years she’s been in, she’s averaged a block-and-a-half plus per set. That’s impressive — no matter who you’re playing.”

Even as a former setter, Tamas considers middle blocker as important a position as any for his team. That’s why he has a pair of assistants — Rashinda Reed and his wife, Jen Tamas — who specialize in that position. Reed has helped Bastianelli with her blocking. Jen Tamas has helped her advance her offensive game.

“A lot of it for her since we’ve gotten here has been expanding some of her tools,” Chris Tamas said. “We really wanted to expand her role more. Her hitting percentage has gone up by like 80 points every year since we’ve been here. To expand her role and have her be a real force on the offensive and defensive side is a tribute to her work and then, obviously, the work Jen and Rashinda put in with her every day.”

Bastianelli said her overall game has improved “insanely” the last two seasons working with Reed and Jen Tamas. Their insight and the viewpoint they have on the bench during matches provides a wealth of information.

“They see things from outside the court that maybe I don’t see on the court,” Bastianelli said. “Knowing their perspective and being able to apply it or see different things is really cool.”

Bastianelli is closing in on another of Bangert’s records. The current Illini All-American needs just 13 more block assists to pass Bangert’s mark of 613, which also stands as the Big Ten record.

“I just got goosebumps taking about it,” Bangert said. “I’m so excited. If I’m going to get my record broken, I want it broken by another Illinois girl. I’m super stoked for her to reach that record, too.”

Bastianelli’s 656 total blocks came in 418 sets. At minimum, Illinois will play 42 more sets this season, and based on her career blocks per set average of 1.57, she’s on pace to add 66 more to her total.

That’s not counting potential NCAA tournament matches for a program that reached the Sweet 16 last season.

“I broke Mary Eggers record, which was held from the year I was born (1988),” Bangert said. “If Mary held it that long, I held it for seven years and Ali’s going to blow mine out of the water with half the Big Ten season left, I have a feeling her record is going to stand for quite some time.”

Whatever the new record ends up being — think 700-plus — Bastianelli wants to see it broken one day.

“Now it’s like any block I get is just another number added to that,” she said. “It’s really cool. I’m so appreciative I could do that. The next person that gets it? I cannot wait to see that. Just knowing Jo set the record and that was insane then and I’m setting it even farther now, whoever’s next, that’s amazing.”