Digging in to help out fits O'Brien

Digging in to help out fits O'Brien

CHAMPAIGN — Reinforcements are on the way.

Illinois volleyball is set to add Champaign Central's Rylee Hinton and Zion-Benton's Kennedy Collins next week when the early signing period begins as part of the 2019 recruiting class.

For now? Morgan O'Brien is carrying the flag as the lone Illinois native on the Illini roster as No. 4 Illinois (22-3, 11-3 Big Ten) returns to action at 7 p.m. today against Rutgers (6-21, 0-14) at Huff Hall before hosting No. 7 Penn State (19-5, 10-4) at 7 p.m. on Saturday.

O'Brien considered Wisconsin, Iowa and other nearby Big Ten schools as her college volleyball destination. But staying in state appealed to the Libertyville grad, who was a two-time News-Gazette All-State First Team selection for the Wildcats.

"I never really think about it, but it is weird when you look at it and realize everyone's from far away and I'm the only one from here," O'Brien said. "I wanted to be close to home, and I think just being in my home state and playing for Illinois was a huge thing. I really wanted that name on my back."

It's a question Illinois coach Chris Tamas has fielded fairly regularly from fans. Shouldn't more players from the state of Illinois be on the Illinois roster?

While the Illini coaching staff will mine the state for its top talent — and understand the importance of doing so — they aren't putting all of their recruiting eggs in a one-state basket.

"Yes, there's good players in Illinois, but there's good players everywhere," Tamas said. "We'll continue to take players — whoever has interest in the Illini and in our coaching staff — to be a part of a great program. If they happen to come from Illinois, then great."

The one Illinois native the Illini do have has played an integral role to the team's success this season. O'Brien has settled in at libero as a sophomore and leads the team with 396 digs and a digs per set average that ranks her eighth in the Big Ten.

"I think it was a huge role to take on, but I had a lot of people helping," O'Brien said of replacing four-year starter Brandi Donnelly, who ranks second all-time in program history behind Jennifer Beltran with 2,044 career digs.

"I think I've grown into it," O'Brien continued. "(Assistant coach Alfee Reft) is there, and he always brings a new challenge for me. A big thing is being super loud on the court and controlling the back row and telling people where to go in certain situations."

Reft consistently asking for more of O'Brien as a leader, she said, has helped her better assume that role. It's not her first time as a libero, but playing that position in the Big Ten is certainly different than doing so in high school.

"Last year I was probably a lot more quiet and in my shell," she said. "Now I have a bigger role. I think I had been a natural leader for a while. I think Alfee brings that out of me."

O'Brien had something of a breakthrough performance in Illinois' four-set win at Nebraska on Oct. 27. She set a career high with 34 digs, Illinois finished with 104 as a team (tied for second most in the rally scoring era) and O'Brien claimed the first Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honor of her career.

"She anchors that," Tamas said of the Illini's team performance against the Cornhuskers. "She's done a great job passing since day one she's been here, so we know she's a solid passer. For her, it's about upping her game on the defense, and that was a good game to do that."