Long Beach State Mizuno Invitational
UI vs. Florida State, 1 p.m.
UI vs. Long Beach St., 9:30 p.m.
Illinois vs. Kentucky, 6:30 p.m.
Setting the scene
There’s no easing into the season for this Illini team. Not with two Top 20 opponents and another that received votes in the American Volleyball Coaches Association preseason poll. Illinois opens against No. 18 Florida State and closes the tournament versus No. 17 Kentucky. In between are the host 49ers, who were 33rd in the AVCA voting — fourth spots behind the Illini. “We start off with some serious competition,” Illini coach Kevin Hambly said. ... The last meeting between Illinois and Long Beach State, in 1998, was memorable for multiple reasons. The 49ers were ranked No. 1 entering the NCAA Sweet 16 match. In the LBSU lineup that night was a player whose name might ring a bell. Before Misty May-Treanor became a three-time Olympic gold medalist in beach volleyball, she was the setter and captain of a 49ers team that went 36-0 in 1998 — the first women’s NCAA volleyball team to go undefeated in a season. Except for one set, Illinois was competitive against this juggernaut in a 16-14, 15-4, 15-11 loss. ... The tournament field includes two 2011 Final Four qualifiers: Illinois and Florida State. The Illini advanced to the title match before losing to UCLA, which ousted Florida State in the semifinals. ... Illinois last faced Kentucky in 1988 in a collision of Top 10 teams, the No. 5 Illini sweeping the No 9 Wildcats 3-0 at a tournament in suburban Chicago. Who awaited Mike Hebert’s Final Four-bound Illini next? Why, No. 10 Long Beach State, which lost a five-set battle against Illinois.
A closer look
Coach: Kevin Hambly (fifth year, 96-36)
2012 record: 14-16
Players to watch: Sr. L Jennifer Beltran; So. OH Jocelynn Birks; Jr. OH/RS Liz McMahon
Illini update: Hambly has options on who will be in his rotation and how he will configure it, but the coach isn’t tipping his hand before the opener. At a press conference this week, Hambly addressed the topic this way: “Long Beach State, I don’t need them to know. There’s some questions out there, and it’s better to kind of keep that to myself. I’m not sure how much they check, but we’re certainly checking all the websites of all the programs (in the Long Beach State tournament) to see if we can get any information about how their teams are going to look.” ... What is clear is that a significant portion of the rotation will be young. Beltran, McMahon and redshirt junior middle blocker Anna Dorn are the lone Illini with more than one season of starting experience. However, redshirt sophomores Birks and Ali Stark each were rotation regulars last season, and sophomore setter Alexis Viliunas started four Big Ten matches last season. “We’re very likely to play three sophomores that have all played a significant amount of time and maybe a couple of freshmen that have been around the game and have seen it,” Hambly said. “We’re going to be young but experienced. That usually bodes well as far as energy level and being able to bounce back fast.” ... Hambly indicated that freshman outside hitter Michelle Strizak, 2012 Gatorade Ohio Player of the Year, could be redshirted. The Illini have experienced talent and plenty of depth at her position. “We haven’t decided to redshirt anybody yet,” the UI coach said. “We’ll have to decide pretty soon. She’s a candidate ... just because I think she’s going to be a lot better five years from now than she is this year, but she still may be able to help us this year. We’re still trying to figure that out. She’s a great attacker, but there’s a lot more that goes into being on the court.”
Coach: Chris Poole (sixth year, 130-34)
2012 record: 28-4
Players to watch: Sr. OH Olivera Medic; Jr. L Katie Mosher; Sr. MB Ashley Neff
About the Seminoles: Florida State graduated four starters from a senior class that racked up 109 victories over four years, won three Atlantic Coast Conference titles and went to the NCAA Final Four in 2011, Neff is the top returnee from a 2012 team that reached the second round of the NCAA tournament before bowing out against Purdue. The 6-foot-3 middle blocker is a two-time AVCA All-American, earning third-team honors last year. For the third time in four years, FSU is picked to win the conference in the ACC coaches’ preseason poll.
Long Beach State
Coach: Brian Gimmillaro (29th year, 744-189)
2012 record: 18-11
Players to watch: Sr. OH Delainey Aigner-Swesey; Jr. MB Haleigh Hampton; Jr. MB Chisom Okpala
About the 49ers: Despite having only one senior, this is not an inexperienced team. Junior right-side hitter Bre Mackie and junior libero Tyler Jackson are two-year starters. So is classmate Hampton, a 2011 honorable mention All-American who redshirted last season due to a shoulder injury. Another 2012 medical redshirt, sophomore setter Erin Juley, started in 2011 as a true freshman. The LaGrange Lyons graduate is a former high school teammate of Birks and Viliunas. That trio helped the Lions win the 2010 Class 4A state title.
Coach: Craig Skinner (ninth year, 180-76)
2012 record: 22-11
Players to watch: Sr. OH Whitney Billings; Sr. MB Alexandra Morgan; Jr. OH Lauren O’Conner
About the Wildcats: Kentucky reached the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 for the third time in four years in 2012. The Wildcats return five starters and five letter winners from last season. Billings earned second-team AVCA All-America honors in 2012, when she led the Wildcats in kills and service aces while ranking second in digs and blocks, Skinner has built Kentucky into a national power after serving as an assistant at Wisconsin (1994-96) and Nebraska (2000-04).