CHAMPAIGN — It's been more than a year since Jocelynn Birks and Alexis Viliunas played on the same floor in an actual volleyball match. A match with fans in the stands and officials making rulings and the scoreboard tracking the points.
That changes Saturday night, when these former high school and club teammates get after it in Illinois' annual Alumni Event at Huff Hall.
"I'm really excited to be back playing with Joss," Illini freshman Viliunas said Friday after practice. "Our chemistry was really awesome in high school, and I think playing together again on this court will bring it back."
The only detail still to be settled is whether the two LaGrange Lyons High School graduates will be on the same side of the court for the varsity intrasquad exhibition.
As of Friday afternoon, coach Kevin Hambly still was contemplating how to divvy up his roster or whether any players will switch teams in the midst of the match.
"We haven't decided just yet," he said.
However that plays out, it's enough for Birks and Viliunas just to pull on the same uniforms again. They last were teammates in the summer of 2011 with the 1st Alliance Volleyball Club in suburban Chicago.
"We're like best friends so it's super exciting," Birks said.
Unlike their experience in high school, the pair can expect to be teammates for four years at Illinois.
A year apart in age, outside hitter Birks and setter Viliunas played three seasons together on the Lyons varsity. When Hambly decided to redshirt then-true freshman Birks last year, it meant that she and Viliunas would be on parallel playing tracks in college.
"I was really excited when I found out I was redshirting, that we would be on the same team again for four years," said Birks, the 2010 News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year. "She's a great player, so it's also exciting just to have her for the team."
As prep teammates, the duo elevated Lyons among the state's elite. The Lions won the IHSA Class 4A title in 2010, one year after placing second. Lyons had a combined record of 78-6 during that two-year span.
"We understand how each other plays, and we're able to help each other out if we ever need help," said Viliunas, the 2011 Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year.
Separated during the 2011-12 academic year, Birks and then-Illini commitment Viliunas say they kept in daily contact via texting, Facebook and occasional phone calls. Since Viliunas' older brother, Eddie, preceded her to the UI and is a member of the Illini football team, Alexis had multiple reasons to make trips to the Urbana-Champaign campus as a high school senior.
And when it was time for Viliunas to make the move herself this summer as an incoming freshman, it was comforting to know that Birks would be there with — and for — her.
"I wouldn't say I picked this school because of Jocelynn, but I think it's nice to have her around," Viliunas said. "I think all freshmen would say it's pretty difficult in the beginning — being away from home, being away from your parents.
"These first few weeks ... it's nice to know that she went through exactly what I'm going through right now. We can talk about it, like I'm not afraid to tell her what I feel. She'll give me suggestions or just be there for me if I need her."
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Huff Hall
Admission: $5 for adults; $2 for children (18 and under); UI students free
Format: Best-of-five intrasquad match
Alumni: Eleven former Illini players are expected to be on hand and will be introduced before the match. They include Johannah Bangert, Michelle Bartsch, Patricia (Albee) Beam, Laura DeBruler, Hannah Deterding, Rachel Feldman, Kelly (See) Finet, Mary (Coleman) Hambly, Abby Nelson, Rachel (Henderson) Ngom and Kristine (Anderson) Rousseau