Versatility a vital advantage for Illini volleyball on tournament run

Versatility a vital advantage for Illini volleyball on tournament run

CHAMPAIGN — The powerful swings of Ashlyn Fleming.

The timely, hard-to-return serves by Kylie Bruder and Taylor Kuper.

The defensive efforts of Caroline Welsh and Morgan O'Brien.

Sure, Jordyn Poulter, Ali Bastianelli and Jacqueline Quade garner much of the recognition for the Illinois volleyball program. Rightfully so considering they are All-Big Ten players.

But the Illini (30-3) wouldn't find themselves two wins away from the program's first Final Four since 2011 without contributions from across the roster.

"We're a team that has so many dimensions," said Quade, Illinois' junior outside hitter who has a team-high 495 kills. "It's very rare that everyone is on every single night at the same time. Having that versatility is huge for us this year."

The next test for showcasing that versatility is at 11 a.m. on Friday against Marquette (28-6) at Huff Hall in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Quade produced a team-high 14 kills during the Illini's four-set win against Louisville this past Saturday night, but Poulter distributed her 44 assists to a variety of targets.

"We talk all the time how if somebody is having an off night or their block and defense is really keyed in on one person, they have to stop all of us," Illinois redshirt junior outside hitter Beth Prince said. "We have a lot of people getting a decent amount of sets and terminating at a good level. It's awesome that Jordyn can go to all of us in tough situations and trust us. It's a really big deal to feel that way about your teammates."

Prince (10 kills), Megan Cooney (nine kills) and Fleming (eight kills) all made a difference against Louisville with their offensive production. And they'll be counted on for even more moving forward, which second-year Illinois coach Chris Tamas realizes.

"We're able to make adjustments on the fly," Tamas said. "I need a good setter to do that. I have one in Jordyn. I need good passers to do that. I have that, and then you have attackers who can put it away."

Fleming stood out against the Cardinals with her efficiency at the middle of the net, converting many of her kill opportunities into needed points by the Illini.

"She brings a lot, offensively and defensively," Bastianelli said of the Pacific transfer in her first season at Illinois. "It helps the pins a lot knowing she's holding the middle block down. Offensively, she's contributing at a high level, which is awesome because as we go on into the tournament, the middles are going to be paying more attention to her."

But the Illini defense relies on reserves filling in nicely, too. Libero Morgan O'Brien compiled 25 digs against Louisville, but Welsh brought the Illini fans to their feet with a few diving efforts against the Cardinals to preserve rallies. Contributions across the board in all facets is a key reason why the Illini find themselves riding a 15-match win streak heading into Friday's action against Marquette.

"We're built to frustrate a lot of teams," Tamas said. "You might stop us one way, but then we can come back, flip on a dime and do something else. That's probably what makes our team exciting. All of a sudden, you're going to get production out of someone you haven't seen before or if they key on someone, we can use someone else. I always refer to the team because that's what it is, and that's what it's been the whole time I've been here."