Croatian standout Vrankovic now eligible for Illini

Croatian standout Vrankovic now eligible for Illini

CHAMPAIGN — Chris Tamas inherited nine freshmen when he became the Illinois volleyball coach ahead of the 2017 season. 

He understands the dynamics of adding that many newcomers to a roster. That experience will help this fall when eight newcomers join the remaining members of the Illini’s 2018 Final Four team.

Illinois officially announced the final three members of its 2019 roster Tuesday with the addition of walk-on defensive specialists Alyssa Eske and Madison Chi, to go along with outside hitter Bruna Vrankovic, after nearly a yearlong back and forth with the NCAA to get the Croatian national eligible.

“You’re looking at adding to the team as best you can, whether it’s in terms of depth or adding in new positions,” Tamas said. “I think this whole class does it all. … The challenge is integrating everyone into what you just spent two years building. You lose a big core of that in Ali (Bastianelli) and Jordyn (Poulter) and Blayke (Hranicka) and lose that senior leadership, but I think we’ve done a good job of developing leaders along the way.

“It’s never an easy challenge to integrate everyone because everyone’s come from different backgrounds, but we have a solid core returning. Eight is admittedly a lot to bring on, but I think we’ve got a really solid core, and for a group that’s been there, they know how to relay that to the group coming in.”

Eske, Chi and Vrankovic join a group of newcomers that includes four more true freshmen and sophomore setter Mica Allison. Allison, the St. Thomas More graduate who transferred from Auburn this past winter, and freshman middle blocker and Champaign native Rylee Hinton were both on campus this spring as early enrollees. The other freshmen include Ellie Holzman, Kennedy Collins and Kyla Swanson.

Vrankovic also spent most of the spring with the Illini. The 6-foot-2 outside hitter from Split, Croatia, was declared eligible in February. She was enrolled at Illinois the entire school year and spent the fall around the Illinois team if not actually on the roster.

“The NCAA takes their time to work through all the paperwork,” Tamas said. “We’ve been up front with everything we presented them. There was a lot of back and forth with them to keep proving she was an eligible player in the NCAA. I’m happy that the case worked out the way it did and we’re able to announce her.”

Tamas said Vrankovic’s 22-month FIVB doping ban, which will expire on July 3, was not connected to her denied eligibility for the 2018 season or in her receiving eligibility in February. She tested positive for a Clostebol metabolite in 2017.

“People think of doping as it happens a certain way and it’s intentional,” Tamas said. “This wasn’t one of those cases. She was unknowingly taking something, and she had a court that was willing to punish her for it. It was kind of an unfortunate circumstance. We’re happy that she’s cleared.”

Vrankovic will only strengthen Illinois’ depth of pin hitters. All three starters return in First Team All-American outside hitter Jacqueline Quade, Beth Prince and Megan Cooney. The Illini also bring back Emily Hollowell, while adding the national Gatorade Player of the Year in Holzman and Zion-Benton’s Collins in that group as well.

“With her position, we already have three people that have been with us two years because you’re talking about her as a pin hitter,” Tamas said about Vrankovic’s potential immediate impact given her experience playing in Europe. “Volleyball, like most sports, isn’t just about being really skilled. It’s about working within the team. Everyone’s going to get a shot to earn a spot on the court. She’s going to have a good shot to do so.

“She’s got a heavy arm, which means she can hit the ball hard. That goes a long way in our sport. Having played in Europe most of her life she’s been used to playing that style. She’ll be a little ahead maybe in the passing, but they do play different systems over in Europe. She’s been doing great when she was with us.”

Eske and Chi, meanwhile, add more depth to Illinois’ group of defensive specialists behind the three regulars — libero Morgan O’Brien along with Taylor Kuper and Caroline Welsh — that helped the Illini reach the Final Four. In the recruiting process, Tamas was captured by the competitive nature of Eske, a native of Milwaukee, and the proficiency Chi, who hails from Irvine, Calif., brings to the court.

“When you get to those positions, it’s not necessarily if you’re going to push the others,” Tamas said about the new defensive specialists for the Illini. “It’s how you work together as a unit. We really want them to understand how we do it at Illinois. I might take some time to do that.

“That role is huge for us because we don’t want the ball to hit the ground — especially when we’re in practice. We want to make sure it’s as hard as possible for anyone to get a kill. I think we have a good core. I think they’re a good addition to that unit.”