Shorter practices help Illinois volleyball stay fresh

Shorter practices help Illinois volleyball stay fresh

CHAMPAIGN — Each volleyball team playing in Friday's NCAA regional semifinals has a 90-minute open practice at Huff Hall today.

It gives Marquette, Wisconsin and San Diego time to at least familiarize themselves with the venue and the court — something Illinois will again do since its brand new Taraflex floor had to be rolled up and stored away with the NCAA-branded (and mandated) SportCourt floor in place.

The 90-minute practice, though, isn't anything new for the Illini, who will play Marquette at 11 a.m. Friday in the Sweet 16.

Illinois coach Chris Tamas doesn't believe in long, grinding practices. The Illini's typically last no more than 90 minutes. They go hard in practice for as long as they might be asked to in a normal match.

"To be able to come in and focus and work hard for that one hour and a half, I think it's really important (for) our bodies and minds," Illinois senior setter Jordyn Poulter said. "We've been lucky to have coaches that are very cognizant of how we're feeling and try not to wear us out during the most important part of the season."

Those focused practices, sophomore libero Morgan O'Brien said, allow the Illini to take a similar approach into a match. Everything they do inside the practice gym is replicated when it matters most.

"I think it really gets you used to the way a game is played," O'Brien said. "When we come in here for 90 minutes and go after it, that's the same mindset we're going into a game with. It's really nice because we're super productive."

Tamas structuring his practices that way, though, left some available time in the Illini's schedule.

That's where assistant coach Alfee Reft has worked in what junior defensive specialist Caroline Welsh called "defensive tutors."

Twice a week — usually Mondays and Wednesdays — Reft leads a group of Illinois players through 15 to 30 minutes of defensive-only drills. That time spent specifically on floor defense and passing has been critical to both Illinois' rise during the regular season and its NCAA tournament run thus far.

"That's been really good to solely focus on defense because in our normal practices we have to work a lot on six-on-six play," Welsh said. "We don't get a lot of technique work. ... It's not like we're learning more technique or anything. We're just refining it and reminding ourselves that we do have this in us."

O'Brien spent time one-on-one with Reft on Tuesday afternoon. Just libero and coach working on defensive drills. O'Brien said she's found those times — in addition to the somewhat larger defensive tutors — have made a significant difference in her play this season as well as the team’s.

“It’s really nice to have that one-on-one time with the coach,” she said. “Being able to talk when we’re not in our six-on-six practice is super helpful because they can explain things in so much more detail. A huge thing that’s a difference with Alfee (a former U.S. National Team libero) is that he has all this experience under his belt. He’s played and he knows what it’s like. He knows how to put it in the moment, and he really relates it to himself, which makes it easy for us to understand.”

The defensive tutors are open to any interested players. Megan Cooney has taken advantage of those opportunities. The sophomore opposite hitter isn’t a six-rotation player — not yet, anyway — but that’s what she’s working toward.

“I played back row a lot in high school and since I got to college I’ve not gotten a ton of opportunities mostly since I’m really focusing on hitting and blocking all practice,” Cooney said. “It’s really fun for me to get back in defense mode, and I’m hoping to work a lot on that in the spring and hopefully eventually get to be a six-rotation player.

“(Reft) has really helped tremendously — things I’ve never been coached to do in the back row. He’s really helped our back row a ton. Me, I’m just starting to work on it, and I can see improvements for sure.”