Kevin Hambly, entering his fifth season as head coach of the Illini volleyball team and 10th year on the staff, sat down with News-Gazette volleyball beat writer Jeff Huth this week to discuss a range of topics, including his team’s prospects for rebounding from a losing 2012 record.
Give us your assessment of the current overall status of the program. I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress. When I replaced Don (Hardin), Don was like “I think we’ve got a good start here. You need to take it further.” And we did that as far as with the (2011) national championship (title-match) run. And then I feel like the fan base has been growing and our booster club has I think tripled in the last couple years. They’re making money. Our team has a great GPA (grade-point average). I feel like the overall program is really healthy. I feel like the recruiting is really healthy. (Future) classes I can’t talk about, they’re going in a great direction. I feel really good about everything except for just last year (when) we didn’t win enough. I want to get to making sure that we understand how to win. Our program will remain healthy because we’re on top of that stuff.
Coming off an NCAA runner-up finish in 2011, most observers expected some slippage last season, particularly with the graduation losses of two All-American outside hitters. However, it’s doubtful anyone would have anticipated a losing record and no NCAA tournament bid for the first time since 2007. What are your thoughts on why last season turned out the way it did? I think the first thing is the players that were replacing the players that we lost didn’t understand how hard those players worked to get to the level that they got. And not only did they not understand how hard they had to work in practice, but they didn’t just understand how hard it is in games to win in the Big Ten and to win at a high level. They looked at it and it looked very easy. But those (previous players) worked really hard to make it look easy. And we had to learn that. And we lost (outside hitter) Jazmine (Orozco). I think if we didn’t lose Jazmine as a transfer (to Pepperdine) — I don’t talk about that very often — but she would have been the bridge to keep us going because she had experience and she would have been a junior and we’d have (had) a spring with her to get her ready. She started for us and got us to the Sweet 16 (in 2010) and played great. And then we had Lizzie (McMahon join the team in 2011) and we moved (Michelle) Bartsch (to outside hitter) and we ended up losing (Orozco) because of all that. If we had her last year, then it would have been (Jocelynn) Birks and her on the outside and Lizzie on the right, and I think we would have had a better season. So what happened instead is we (had) these two freshmen outside that have no experience that have to play the most important role on the floor, and they didn’t understand what it took. They have a much better understanding now and they’re prepared. All of them are prepared for this now. I think that’s the biggest reason (for the losing season) — just not understanding.
For your team to return to its previous level of success, which area of its performance in particular must improve? The ball-control thing. The ability to extend rallies and to take care of the ball in serve-receive. To me, that’s all ball-control-related stuff, and that’s where we’re putting a significant amount of time in (now), because that’s where we feel like we need to improve the most. We’d lose points that we typically wouldn’t lose on ball-control plays.
This will be the third year in a row in which one of your two full-time assistant coaches is new to the staff. What impact has such turnover had on the program? It’s been hard because we lost Dave (Kniffin) so late last year. When we lost Kent (Miller after the 2010 season), there was enough time to get Dave acclimated to how we want to play. (After Kniffin left), we had four days to get Dan (Conners) ready, so that was tough. But he’s had a year with us now and I think he’s in the mix. (New assistant) Jayme (Gergen) came in February and I feel like she has a good understanding. Not a perfect understanding. I mean (former assistant) Jen (Oldenburg) and I were really together since she was with the U.S. National Team (in 2002-03) and took a lot of those same (coaching) principles there, so when I started taking over the (Illini) training, she understood. It (was) almost 12 years together. So no (assistant) is going to be at that level (of understanding) until they have 12 years here, which I don’t think any of my assistants will be here that long because I think they’ll all be head coaches. But I think it’s been hard. It’s been a challenge because you have to spend time teaching them as well as teaching the players. I didn’t have to worry about teaching Jen. It just separates your attention from the team. You’ve got to make sure the staff’s on it so they can teach and you don’t have to micro-manage everything. If we’re all working in concert and we all understand, we can get more done. And we were getting a lot done before. Last year was tougher because we had to micro-manage a little bit.
You have plenty of options when it comes to the outside and right-side hitter positions. How far along are you on settling on the starters in those roles and do you intend to make final decisions by the opener? We’re in the evaluation process. If someone emerges, then maybe we’ll make a decision by then. Or because Lizzie’s so versatile, maybe she plays left and we have a lineup for when she’s on the left side, and maybe she’s a right and we have a lineup for the right side. And maybe it’s two different players in that third pin position. I’ll be surprised if someone beats out Jocelynn. She’s just doing a great job. And so with those two, it’s filling in one more pin spot. Time will tell if we have those options. Some days in practice, I say, yeah, for sure we’ve got three or four kids that can do it. And sometimes I’m not sure anyone can do it. I don’t suspect we’ll make that decision until we’re through preconference, where we’re really settling in on lineups.
The team is transitioning to a new setter this season, with sophomore Alexis Viliunas taking the reins of the attack. How prepared at this point is the 2011 Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year to assume that critical role? A hundred times more than she was last year to try to take over. We were in the midst of changing her technique last year. I think right now she has a great understanding of how we want her to play. She’s in the process of learning how to lead a team. And I think last year she didn’t even know how to play (at this level), and so that was a struggle for her because how can you lead when you can’t know how to play? I think she’s really close. I think by the end of this preconference, she’ll be headed down the path of starting to understand how to connect with players and to lead. So I’m optimistic that she’s going to be really, really ready to play. She’s a very good volleyball player and she just needed some time to figure out our system, which can be somewhat complicated at times.
For the first time since 2009, Erin Johnson won’t be starting for the Illini at middle blocker, although she’s still a part of the program as a student assistant coach. Who will join Anna Dorn this season in the middle?
I think it’s very possible that both Maddie Mayers and Katherine Stadick could both be playing quite a bit. They’re both doing a really nice job blocking right now. And for that matter, Kathryn Polkoff’s doing a really nice job as well — our walk-on middle. That’s not one of our weaknesses, even though we’re young. They’re all really physical, good-sized kids. Stadick’s 6-3, but her arms are longer than Erin Johnson’s. Her whole hand fits over the top (of the net). I don’t know what she reaches — we haven’t measured that — but she’s really, really long. So I think it could be all of them. At some point, someone will emerge probably. Or maybe two of them will emerge and we’ll be able to rotate some middles. Ideally, I’ve always wanted to rotate three middles in the Big Ten. I wanted to say, “Hey, look, tonight’s your night off,” cause that position is just brutal. It’s a lot of work, a lot on the body. So if we can get a three-middle rotation, I’d be ecstatic.
With Dorn having taken a medical redshirt as a freshman and Orozco having transferred after the 2011 season, libero Jennifer Beltran is the lone scholarship senior on the current roster from the recruiting Class of 2010. What impact has the fourth-year starter made during her career and what do you expect of her in her final season? At this point, Jennifer may be the best leader we’ve had. She’s looked to lead both by example and she’s the vocal leader on the court. When she came (here), she had a lot of things to figure out about herself. She was a great volleyball player. But she struggled in school a little bit; she struggled with different things. And she’s got herself together. I haven’t been around many leaders that I would say could handle the role of just being a true captain, and she’s one of two since I’ve coached in college that I would say, “She can be the captain” — meaning that she can manage all that needs to be managed. Usually we spread leadership out amongst a lot of people, and she can really handle it all. We’re not going to ask her to, but she could handle it. She’s all about Illinois volleyball and creating a legacy here. I think she wants to leave an impression on her time here over her four years that, “Hey, look, this is one of the best eras that Illinois volleyball’s ever had.”
Which of the five true freshmen is most likely to make the biggest impact this season? Stadick. Just because of the need (at her position). I’d say she’s most likely. She reminds me a lot of Erin Johnson as a middle blocker where she’s not just a blocker/hitter, she’s also a volleyball player. She can handle the ball. She can set. She can do a lot of things. She actually played six rotations in high school and hit out of the back row, so she’s a real volleyball player.
Which position can you least afford to lose a starter to injury? Setter. (Backup) McKenna (Kelsay) is going to be a good setter, but she’s small (5-foot-7) and she’d have some trouble blocking.
If the voters for the American Volleyball Coaches Association preseason poll have accurately gauged the national scene, you face what can only be described as a brutal schedule, with 18 matches against Top 25 teams and another four matches against teams listed on at least two ballots. What are your thoughts on the formidable challenges this schedule seemingly presents? I like to schedule tough. I want to be exposed (to good opponents). I also want to have a good RPI (Rating Percentage Index). Because our RPI was in the 30s (last season), there was no doubt we were going to make it into the tournament (had the Illini’s record been at least .500, as required by the NCAA for postseason consideration). And I’d rather be in that position than have 23 wins, like some teams, and going, “Am I going to make it?” So I would much rather schedule hard. And if and when we have great years, like we did in 2011 — I think we had the No. 1 or No. 2 strength of schedule in the country — then we get a top-three seed or a top-four seed. And that’s important if you want to make runs to the national championship. And we think on a national scale. I want to prepare the team to win the national championship. And so by having a tough schedule, we play against tough competition, we understand what that is, it prepares us for the Big Ten so we can get better throughout the Big Ten instead of scrambling. And then, if and when we have enough wins, we’re going to get (high) seeds.
Speaking of scheduling, Illinois will host an NCAA regional at the State Farm Center in mid-December. Last year, you indicated that the Illini would play “multiple” regular season matches in 2013 at the former Assembly Hall. However, you are scheduled to play there once — on Sept. 27 against Iowa — with the rest of your home dates at Huff Hall. Why did “multiple” change to one and do you wish you had more regular season opportunities to get acclimated to a different home venue for the postseason? Multiple changed to one mainly because we have such a tough schedule. We thought about doing our preconference schedule there, (but) I want to play Texas and Washington here (at Huff Hall) because I feel like it’s an advantage to play at Huff. We also talked about having some other matches in there, (but) I don’t want our kids to miss out on the opportunity to play at Huff because Huff is such a special place. It just didn’t make sense. Maybe we don’t have as big an advantage as we would like to in Assembly Hall. I don’t want our seniors to end their careers playing five matches or six matches in a venue that they’re not normally playing at, and I just didn’t think it was fair to them. I think we’ll be fine (with one State Farm date).
Finally, with the athletic department making the financial and logistical commitment to hosting a regional, how much pressure is there to get your team to that level of the tournament? The pressure’s there either way. I’ve said before — last year was a testament to this — that if we don’t make it to the Sweet 16, I feel like it’s been a bad season for us. I think we should be a top-16 program every single year at the very least. Our bad years should be that. I feel that pressure to be there anyway. I look at it as more of an opportunity than as pressure if we’re able to host (regionals) at home. I think the fan support would be tremendous and would give us a great opportunity to pull off something pretty special.