CHAMPAIGN — Quintessential.
It’s not exactly a word you hear every day.
But to those who know Anna Dorn well, it came as no surprise when the Illinois volleyball player dipped into her apparently deep reservoir of vocabulary last Friday during a postmatch news conference while describing that night’s opponent.
It was, well, quintessential Anna Dorn.
“It’s a fine word,” the Illini middle blocker said this week, a quick smile accompanying her unnecessary defense of its usage.
Count Kevin Hambly among those who didn’t blink an eye when the 20-year-old flexed her language muscles after the Illini played Minnesota.
“Yeah, she’s a really smart kid,” the UI coach said. “She’s in the honors program here. She had a 4.0 (grade-point average) last semester. ... She’s taking as tough classes as you can take. She’s a really great student.”
It is Kathy Kaler’s task to monitor and assist Hambly’s student-athletes with the first part of that title. In Dorn’s case, “I don’t have to do much,” the UI’s academic counselor to the volleyball team said. “She does a great job. She’s very dedicated in the classroom.”
Others outside the volleyball program have taken notice.
The redshirt sophomore is in two UI academic honors programs — the James Scholar, through the College of Applied Health Sciences, and the Chancellor’s Scholar. The latter is a campuswide program limited to 500 students. Dorn also was a 2011-12 Big Ten Distinguished Scholar, which is awarded to conference athletes who maintain at least a 3.7 GPA for the academic year.
“For me, I’m definitely a student before I’m an athlete,” said the Munster, Ind., native, who graduated from her high school with highest honors and was an academic all-state honoree. “I think going to school is really important, and that’s one of the major reasons I came here is because it is such a strong academic school.”
Hambly had some heavyweight academic — as well as athletic — competition while recruiting Dorn, particularly from Stanford. Had peer pressure won out, the kinesiology major might now be blocking shots and crushing shots for the Cardinal.
“When I was deciding (on a school) and talking to a lot of my friends, they were like, ‘Why would you not go to Stanford?’ just for the fact that they would kill to go there,” Dorn said.
Ultimately, the player that Prepvolleyball.com ranked sixth in her class decided that Illinois offered everything Stanford did, plus one thing the Palo, Alto, Calif., school couldn’t: proximity.
“It was just too far away for me,” Dorn said. “And I like being in the Big Ten.”
Dorn entered the UI with the intention of going on to medical school and becoming a doctor, but those plans have changed. The 6-foot-3 Illini — herself no stranger to physical rehabilitation after tearing a knee ligament early in her freshman season — wants to enter the field of physical therapy. Dorn feels even more strongly about that career path after observing professionals over the summer at a Champaign physical therapy facility.
“I got about 50 hours of shadowing in over there and just absolutely loved every minute of it, so I think it’s going to be a great thing for me to pursue.”
Dorn’s own experience with physical rehab followed her season-ending injury in the fifth match of the 2010 season. The timing allowed the then-freshman to receive a medical redshirt, preserving a year of eligibility. Since Dorn was backing up established starters Johannah Bangert and Erin Johnson, her playing time that season figured to be minimal anyway.
“Maybe this is for the best,” Hambly told her at the time, adding, “It was an opportunity for her to get stronger and healthy.”
Dorn was both when she reported for duty last season, and with Illini career blocks leader Bangert having graduated, Hambly needed a capable replacement.
Dorn proved to be far more than that, producing a team-high 183 blocks — the third-highest single-season total in program history.
Along the way, Dorn turned in several memorable performances for the 2011 NCAA tournament runners-up, including what Hambly now regards as a turning-point match for the young middle blocker. Illinois, which hadn’t won at Penn State since 1995, outbattled the four-time defending champions in five sets last October in State College, Pa. They couldn’t have done it without Dorn’s UI record-tying 13 block assists. But more than that, Dorn was a difference-maker in the match-on-the-line fifth set, producing a kill and four block assists in a 15-12 Illini win.
“That’s when she started to become tough,” Hambly said.
The UI coach has seen Dorn continue to step up at crunch time, most recently last Sunday, when she came through with four kills and a block assist in the fifth set to help Illinois pull out a difficult win against Wisconsin.
“When the game’s been on the line, she’s been really good,” Hambly said. “When the team needs her, she seems to figure it out.”
Dorn’s helping hand can extend to the academic side as well. She’s developed a reputation as a go-to teammate among Illini players looking to make sense of their math homework.
Does this Chancellor’s Scholar ever receive good-natured teasing about her smarts? Has “Brainiac” been added to a nickname list that already includes “A-Dorn” and “AD”?
On a team with a number of high-achieving students, Dorn has been spared that particular label. But she’s not above poking a little fun at her own expense.
“I kind of refer to myself as the little nerd of the team,” Dorn said.
There’s certainly nothing little about her game, however. Dorn, who ranks fifth nationally in hitting percentage and eighth in the Big Ten in blocks per set, might even be on course for a double dose of All-Big Ten honors this season — for academics and volleyball.
“It’s great to be able to see her combine both academics with athletics and excel at both because of her work ethic,” Kaler said. “She is so determined to succeed at every level.”