CHAMPAIGN — When you stand 6-foot-6, as Liz McMahon does, opponents presumably have no problem keeping track of your whereabouts on a volleyball court.
Even in a sport conspicuous for its extraordinary height, a player of the Illinois junior’s physical stature does have a tendency to rise head and shoulders above the crowd.
Just the same, opponents might be advised not to get complacent about McMahon’s exact location in the 2013 Illini lineup.
After playing most of her college career as a right-side hitter, the 2012 All-Big Ten selection could just as well be unleashing her often-unstoppable shots from the left side this season.
“She can do both, and it gives us some incredible flexibility,” Illini coach Kevin Hambly said. “There are so few (players) that can do both like she can at a high level.”
Hambly became convinced of that late last season. As the calendar turned to November with his team mired in a four-match losing streak, the UI coach decided to shift McMahon to outside hitter. The impetus? The Illini’s sixth five-set loss of the season three nights earlier.
“When we started to look at what was the common thread, it came down to the left-side attack at the end (of matches),” Hambly said. “(I thought), you know what, let’s give it a shot.”
When McMahon belted 15 kills and hit .314 in her debut at outside hitter against Indiana, Hambly never looked back.
“She did great, and I thought she was great the rest of the year,” he said.
As it turned out, the move couldn’t salvage Illinois’ fading attempt to land an NCAA tournament bid. No fault of McMahon’s, however. The Liberty Township, Ohio, native produced at least 15 kills in six of seven matches — including a career-high 30 in a five-set win against Northwestern — following her move to the left side. In that span, McMahon averaged 4.21 kills per set and hit .283. As a right-side hitter last season, she averaged 2.96 kills and hit .264.
In the process, the hot-hitting McMahon warmed to a new position.
“I like it,” she said. “You just get more swings on the left, just because it’s an easier set. I really just like the opportunity to have a bigger role.”
Will this also be McMahon’s role in 2013? Despite her success at outside hitter down the stretch last season, don’t assume a permanent position switch is in McMahon’s future. Given her proven versatility — and the potential emergence of one of several promising young outside hitters — Hambly says he’s weighing multiple lineup scenarios entering preseason training camp next month.
“Time will tell, and I don’t really have an answer right now except (that) I like our options and I like our possibilities that are going to be in the gym,” Hambly said. “It will be fun to explore.”
Redshirt sophomore Jocelynn Birks, a 2012 All-Big Ten honorable-mention choice, again will be a fixture at one of the outside hitter spots. Besides McMahon, other candidates to pair with Birks include junior Morganne Criswell, a proven point producer who needs to elevate other areas of her game; and freshmen Michelle Strizak and Katie Roustio. Strizak was the 2012 Ohio Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year and a first-team AVCA/Under Armour High School All-American. Roustio was an Under Armour second-team All-American.
Redshirt sophomore Ali Stark also figures into the lineup equation. After McMahon shifted to outside hitter, Stark took her place on the right side. Should the Mount Vernon, Iowa, native prove she can be consistently effective there, it would make it easier for Hambly to stick with McMahon on the left side.
For her part, McMahon says she understands why her 2013 role remains up in the air.
“Nothing’s set in stone until we get all the girls here,” she said. “Preseason is when we’ll really start to figure out who’s going to be in the rotation where.”
It’s possible, in fact, that McMahon could end up playing both positions next season. Hambly says he might decide that versus a certain opponent, the matchups favor his team when McMahon is on the right side. Or, on the left. Even switching McMahon within the course of a match, the UI coach says, isn’t out of the question.
The performance of the third starting hitter — whether it’s Criswell, Stark or whomever — also could dictate where McMahon winds up because that’s where she’s most needed.
“With her and Birks, we know we have two pin hitters that can score with anybody in the country,” Hambly said. “We need one more (hitter) to figure that out, and whether that’s a right or a left or maybe both, we’re going to be pretty flexible in what we can do. And Lizzie gives us a lot of flexibility because she can do both.”
However this unfolds, McMahon is confident she can make a major impact at either position — or even at both if need be. After all, she had never played any position except middle blocker before arriving at the UI, yet seamlessly made the move to the right side as a college freshman.
Change is nothing new for the adaptable McMahon.
“They’re very different positions, but since I’ve had almost two full years of right side under my belt, I’m very comfortable there,” she said. “And now I’m getting comfortable at the outside, so I don’t think it will be too hard to transition between the two positions.”
As McMahon learned last season, outside hitter requires a different standard for measuring success. Left sides receive far more swings than other positions, but that also means they typically are dealt more out-of-system sets with lower-percentage outcomes.
“The hardest thing for me (on the outside) is trying to accept the fact that you’re not going to get a kill every ball,” McMahon said. “Like sometimes it’s OK to just get it over (the net) to keep us in a rally. So just minimizing the errors (is important).”
Although McMahon is reluctant to be pinned down on a position of preference, it’s apparent a potential full-time move to the outside is an exciting prospect.
“Since I’ve been playing left so much (lately), I’m definitely warming up to it,” she said. “I love hitting on the left, but I love blocking on the right, so if you could combine them that would be great.”
McMahon believes her impact as an outside hitter would be greater than is possible on the right side, simply because point-producing opportunities are more plentiful.
“On the right side, I was there more for my block, and that did stop teams,” she said. “But it wasn’t always enough to take over matches, which is something I can do.”
And that’s an important consideration for the highly competitive McMahon, particularly after Illinois’ tumble last season from a 2011 NCAA runner-up to an eighth-place Big Ten finisher.
“I just want to win,” she said.
Circle the date
A look at important dates on the Illini volleyball calendar for the 2013 season:
Aug. 12 — First day of practice
Aug. 18 — Volleyball 101 (topic: team’s trip to Italy earlier this summer; 6-8 p.m. at Huff Hall, Room 112; $10 per person with proceeds to the Illini Networkers)
Aug. 24 — Alumni match at Huff Hall (7 p.m.)
Aug. 30 — Season opener vs. Florida State at Long Beach, Calif. (1 p.m.)
Sept. 14 — vs. NCAA defending champion Texas in Illini Classic at Huff Hall (7 p.m.)
Sept. 27 — Big Ten opener vs. Iowa at State Farm Center (6 p.m.)
Oct. 18 — vs. defending Big Ten champion Penn State at Huff Hall (7 p.m.)
Dec. 1 — NCAA tournament field and bracket announced
Dec. 13-14 — NCAA regional semifinals and final at State Farm Center
Dec. 19, 21 — NCAA Final Four at Seattle