Illini volleyball returns against Northwestern on Wednesday night with a new look.
Annie Luhrsen, the UConn transfer who earned accolades for “quarterbacking” the NCAA runners-up last year, has been replaced as setter by
Alexis Viliunas, the heretofore redshirting sister of Illini tight end Eddie Viliunas. Coach Kevin Hambly made the decision as a last-ditch effort to right a sinking ship in time to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
The group dynamics that worked so well last season with powerhouse swingers Colleen Ward and Michelle Bartsch haven’t been clicking with Luhrsen and the UI’s young outside hitters.
It wasn’t, as Hambly judged, the fact that Viliunas is better than Luhrsen, but rather that she would be different and perhaps a better fit. This team was losing too many games and needed to be jarred — are you listening, Tim Beckman? — and it worked Saturday with a five-set comeback win at Michigan State. The Illini, having played a strong schedule, still have a chance to make the NCAA field if they can improve their 9-9 overall standing.
“I thought we’d struggle early this year but I felt all along that we could be a winner,” Hambly said. “At one point we were just three five-set losses from first place (blowing a 14-10 fifth-set lead against No. 1 Penn State).”
As the slump grew it became, in Hambly’s mind, a choice of “giving up on the season” or making a dramatic change.
“We rotated a lot of players and tried different combinations,” he said. “We gave a lot of thought to the setter position. Annie is super intense and was perfect for last year’s team. She did everything she could to bring this team together, and as a staff we did everything we could — ‘We’ve got your back, we’ve got your back’ — and then she got blindsided. It’s hard for her and she’s upset, but she was great in support of Lex Saturday. This was my toughest decision as a coach.”
So, the Illini are younger than ever with four freshmen and two sophomores on the floor. And Viliunas, who last week thought she’d sit out her first season, is the hub of everything they do, receiving the first pass and setting up her teammates. In just one match, she earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors with 49 assists and 14 digs in East Lansing.
We’ll know more Wednesday.
— Not overlooked in the UI football slump is the economic impact of smaller crowds. This was brought home at Michigan where 110,000 fans swarmed through the community on a rainy but upbeat (for them) Saturday. The last three home foes are, like Illinois, winless in Big Ten games: Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue. They’re likely to stay that way for another week with Purdue traveling to Ohio State, and the Gophers playing at Wisconsin.
— Navy (3-3), which hosts Indiana on Saturday, holds an overtime defeat of Air Force and could become the service academies champion by defeating Army (1-5) on Dec. 8.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.