Birks: Ready for liftoff
CHAMPAIGN — As the Illinois volleyball team marched toward the Final Four last season, Jocelynn Birks often was assigned to do her best impression of the next opponent's top outside hitter.
Perhaps none of those impersonations by the then-redshirting freshman was more important to her team than the one Birks performed in the days leading up to the NCAA tournament semifinals. It was then that the LaGrange Lyons graduate channeled Alex Jupiter, Southern Cal's out-of-this-world hitter, on the Illini practice court.
"Her game was similar (to Jupiter's) as far as where she attacked," UI coach Kevin Hambly said this week. "It was almost the exact same shots. She was high and physical."
As expected, Jupiter was a handful for Illinois, racking up a match-high 32 kills. However, the 2011 National Player of the Year also needed a whopping 83 swings to reach that total and committed 12 hitting errors against an Illini defense aware of Jupiter's every step.
Although Birks wasn't on the court during that historic night for Illini volleyball — when it advanced to the NCAA title match for the first time in program history — her teammates knew she'd played a vital role in preparing them to conquer Jupiter & Co. in five sets.
And it was hardly the first time.
"You could ask anyone on the team; she was killing us (in practices)," Illini setter Annie Luhrsen said. "She hits shots that I don't think anyone's used to digging. She sees the block really well and she just has a lot of vision, and I think that's really hard to defend against.
"So it was really good for us because we had to (practice) against one of the best hitters in the country."
One season later, the Illini's favorite impersonator quickly is making a name for herself.
In the first matches of her college career last weekend, Birks led Illinois in kills against all three opponents in a season-opening tournament at Dayton. With 4.40 kills per set, the 6- foot-2 outside hitter ranks fourth in that category in the Big Ten.
"It was so exciting," Birks said. "I was nervous at first, of course, but I was just so happy to be in the jersey finally and playing for the team. ... It was a lot of fun to finally be on the court and playing in a real game."
Not that the 2010 News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year begrudges her season on the sidelines. With a pair of All-America outside hitters on the team last season, Birks' opportunities for playing time as a true freshman figured to be minuscule.
"Essentially, we said (to her), this is about development," Hambly said. "You're not going to beat out (Michelle) Bartsch and (Colleen) Ward, so let's save a year and then let's focus on you being the best player you can be at this time."
It made sense to Birks, whose eligibility now extends through the 2015 season.
"For me, I just needed to get (physically) stronger," the former ESPN prep All-American said. "And there's just a lot of things that they do here that's a lot different ... like technique and all that. It was really good for me to learn that without learning and playing in the game as well."
Still, Birks admits it was difficult to go through an entire season without once taking a swing or digging up a shot in an actual match. Difficult to be a sideline observer only as the Illini racked up 32 wins, spent four weeks at No. 1 in the national poll and finished one win short of an NCAA title.
"Every game, no matter what game it was, I was always dying to get out there, and I wish I could have," she said. "But I know it was best for me to have redshirted, and it was really helpful in the long run."
For Birks, that run has just begun. Not unexpectedly, it's already been a bit of a roller coaster.
In her collegiate debut against Dayton, Birks was a soaring success, belting 16 kills and hitting a sizzling .452 in 31 swings.
In Match 2 against Pepperdine, she struggled through a six-error hitting performance that produced a .086 attack percentage. Later that day, however, Birks produced a match-high 19 kills against Ohio to lead Illinois to its first win of the season.
"She showed signs of being an excellent player, like we expected her to be, and then she showed signs of being a freshman," Hambly said. "Made some mistakes and did some things that freshmen do. So it was exactly what we expected — that she'd be up and down at times — but she had some moments and did some things that not many kids can do."
Hambly was particularly impressed with how unstoppable Birks was on some shots and how she managed to convert attempts with a high degree of difficulty into points.
"She hit a couple shots over the block down the line, they (were) just so high that that will (be effective) in the Big Ten," he said. "Then she hit a couple balls that had the hard angle — almost inside the 10-foot line — on fast sets. That's a tough shot.
"And she was really good out of the back row at times. So that's stuff we need in our offense, and she showed some brilliance."
Birks also showed that if the UI attack needs to lean heavily on her, she's up to the challenge. In the four-set victory against Ohio, Birks took 61 swings. No other Illini had more than 35.
Certainly, Hambly would prefer a more balanced attack, but that's not always possible when a team is out of system or transitioning to offense from a difficult just-keep-it-alive dig.
"Sometimes, just the high balls always go to the outsides, so if we have an off pass or whatever, that's usually what happens," Birks said. "But I was trying as best as I could to get points for the team."
Against Ohio, her best efforts produced 19 kills for a team desperate to leave Dayton with at least one victory.
"Toward the end of the weekend, she really got going," Luhrsen said, "and she was able to kind of pull us through some (rough) patches."