Dual role suits Allison in Illini debut

Dual role suits Allison in Illini debut

CHAMPAIGN — Mica Allison spent the last segment of Illinois’ warmup Wednesday night setting, of course, but also getting her share of swings from the right side. The reason became clear when the Illini’s spring match against Purdue started.

Allison was in Illinois’ starting lineup … with fellow setter Diana Brown. The Auburn transfer and former St. Thomas More standout was going to play setter and opposite against the Boilermakers. Allison proved to be an effective weapon at both spots, showing out alongside former Champaign Central star Rylee Hinton as both hometown products made their Huff Hall debut for the Illini in the team’s five-set loss to Purdue.

“When Chris first called me he was like, ‘Are you going to be ready to play opposite or setter or wherever we put you?’” Allison said. “I was like, ‘I’ll do anything.’ I did it (Wednesday), and it was pretty fun.

“That’s all I did growing up — hitting and setting — so it feels kind of good getting back to what I used to do.”

Whether Illinois continues to use Allison at both positions when the regular season starts in August is to be determined. The roster dynamic will change this summer when the rest of the 2019 class arrives, giving Illinois more options. Either Allison or Brown might pull ahead in the setter competition and run the Illini offense solo.

What won’t change, though, is Allison’s ability to excel in both positions if that’s how Illinois coach Chris Tamas ultimately decides to utilize her.

“Absolutely she’s got the capability to do both,” Tamas said. “Overall, I just look for good volleyball players, and I’ve got a lot of them on my team. If she’s good at both, we’ll explore that and we’ll see how that works out.”

Other factors will play into that decision. Substitution patterns change when teams run two setters. So can ball control or the connection between multiple setters and the Illinois hitters.

“Having been a setter, I know the comfortability of being in a 5-1 and being able to run it by yourself,” Tamas said. “You have to look at all your personnel and make that decision when the time comes. We didn’t have as much time to explore 5-1s this time during the spring with a limited number of matches. We’re going to explore everything.”

While Illinois has multiple setters to work with this spring, the Illini have just two middle blockers currently on the roster. That’s given Hinton, who enrolled early this semester, even more of a head start playing in rotation with rising senior middle Ashlyn Fleming.

“Coming early was one of the best decisions I could have made,” Hinton said. “I get this whole spring to solely work on my game and take my time with the process. It’s been great.”

Hinton’s improvements in the few months she’s been on campus are quantifiable, and Tamas said she’s improved as much as anyone on the Illinois roster. The 4-5 inches she’s added to her vertical and the fact she can now touch well above 10 feet is the evidence.

“That goes a long way in our game,” Tamas said. “She made some plays that were really, really athletic plays.”

Hinton credits strength and conditioning coach Emily Schilling for the gains she’s made in the weight room that have contributed to her play on the court. Immersing herself in college volleyball for two hours a day, five days a week, though, has been a challenge.

“I came in and was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m ready to work for this and know what it’s going to take,’” Hinton said. “Then I got here and was like, ‘This is so much harder than I thought it was going to be.’ … I think I’m doing OK. There’s definitely a lot of room for improvement, but I’m trying to have patience with myself and realize this is my first semester here and I’m not just going to jump into Big Ten volleyball and be the star on the team.”

That’s how Allison is approaching her first spring at Illinois, too. What she’s learning from the Illinois coaching staff is different from the work she put in during her freshman season at Auburn.

“The coaches are trying to break down the things we do,” Allison said. “At least for me coming in they’ve changed a lot of things I do. It’s been fun. I’m trying not to be frustrated about anything, and they definitely aren’t getting frustrated with the things we do. They just want us to get better every single day.”