She's got game and a difficult name

CHAMPAIGN — If you have no idea how to pronounce Alexis Viliunas’ last name, no problem.

The Illinois sophomore volleyball player long ago learned to accept the fact that most folks don’t.

“I don’t really even pay attention anymore,” Viliunas said. “I don’t want to be like rude (by correcting mispronunciations), so I just go with the flow.”

Her family name of Lithuanian heritage is pronounced Vil-OON-iss. But Lex will do just fine, thank you.

Just don’t dare call her Lexi.

“And you can put that in the newspaper,” Viliunas told a print reporter.

Illini coach Kevin Hambly learned of this particular aversion last season. During a postmatch interview, Hambly referred to the setter as Lexi. The next time Viliunas met with the media following a match, she took the opportunity to make her dislike of that version of Alexis known in no uncertain terms, although she says she can’t put her finger on the reason.

“I really don’t know why I don’t like it so much,” she said. “I like it for other people, just not for myself. I just don’t see myself as a Lexi. I just think as I’m getting older, I like being called Lex.”

Good thing for Hambly, who admits he had no idea how to pronounce her surname when he was recruiting the LaGrange Lyons graduate early in her high school career.

“Honestly, around the office (back then) ... we had all kinds of pronunciations,” he said. “She was V for a while. She was Lex V. That’s what she was on my recruiting board.”

Wary of potentially offending Viliunas, Hambly and his staff sidestepped the pronunciation issue  early in the recruiting process — instead always using her first name during any contacts.

When Viliunas made a campus visit shortly before the start of her sophomore season, one of the UI coaches decided to confront the issue head-on.

“It was either me or Jen,” said Hambly, referring to former Illini assistant Jen Oldenburg. “And we just said, ‘Look, Lex, the Alexis part I’ve got. How do you pronounce your last name?’ ”

Within weeks, Viliunas committed to Illinois after also weighing offers from Michigan State and Ohio.

When the 2013 Illini open their season Friday at a tournament in Long Beach, Calif., Viliunas will be in the role Hambly envisioned for her since he spotted the then-high school freshman at the Junior Volleyball Association World Challenge in Louisville, Ky.: setter.

“I just took a peek at the 15-and-under (portion of the tournament) and was immediately impressed.” Hambly said. “Kind of got lucky on that. We were focusing more on the 16-year-olds at that time. I just happened to see her and was watching. Fortunately we were, because then the recruiting process in that class sped up.”

With seven matches and 20 sets on her collegiate resume, the 6-foot-1 sophomore is the undisputed No. 1 at her position for an Illini team looking to bounce back from its first losing season in 10 years.

“I’m excited,” Viliunas said. “I’ve been working hard last season and this past spring and summer to be ready to get into the games and run the offense and try to do whatever I can to help the team.”

At this point, Hambly says, all the three-time News-Gazette All-Stater is lacking is collegiate experience.

“I trust Lex,” he said. “She’s a pure setter as far as I’m concerned. She has a great feel for the ball, and she understands tempo.

“Certainly she needs some time to get used to playing at the college level. The fact that she didn’t redshirt last year and played, (and) knows what Big Ten volleyball is like and played in some matches and had some success, I am more confident than I typically would be with a sophomore setter because I’ve seen her compete.”

The plan in 2012 was to redshirt Viliunas. However, that intention fell apart in the midst of a 14-16 season, leading Hambly to make one of the most difficult decisions of his Illini head coaching tenure.

With then-senior Annie Luhrsen returning from an NCAA tournament runner-up team, Illinois appeared set at the setter position. There was no reason, Hambly reasoned, not to redshirt Viliunas.

“I was totally OK with redshirting because Kevin said, ‘You’ve got the next four years (as the starter). It’s all you,’ ” she said.

That changed with a four-match skid during the first half of the Big Ten race. The breaking point for Hambly was a lackluster performance in a 3-0 loss Oct. 10 at Michigan — a defeat that dropped Illinois’ record to 8-9 overall and 2-5 in the conference.

After much deliberation with his staff, Hambly decided it was time to put Viliunas in the starting lineup in place of Luhrsen.

“We were at a point where we felt like we had more talent and we weren’t living up to it,” he said. “The team was struggling to fight, at times, and we looked at it as kind of a leadership problem, and maybe it was the setting position so it was the one thing we could change.

“(Viliunas has) got a natural leadership ability. More of a casual leadership ability, and with that young team we felt like maybe that personality would help. And it did.”

For a time, anyway. The Illini responded to the switch, winning their next two matches. And Viliunas was a major reason, recording double-doubles (assists and digs) in her first two collegiate starts.

But the impact wasn’t lasting, and Viliunas at times played like the inexperienced freshman she was. Illinois lost its next two matches, the second to a Wisconsin team that entered with a 3-7 Big Ten record. At that point, with the Illini’s NCAA tournament hopes in jeopardy, Hambly made what he felt was a necessary decision to go back to Luhrsen as starting setter.

“(Viliunas’) personality fit the group, and it still fits the group,” Hambly now says. “It’s just that (her) inexperience over time showed up, and she wasn’t really equipped to do it. ... The ability to do it consistently over time is something that comes with a lot of reps, and she was lacking that.”

Hambly says he suspects Viliunas was “really upset” about being demoted after four matches and wouldn’t blame her if she was.

For her part, Viliunas is measured in her comments about the situation and, in retrospect, says she understands why Hambly returned Luhrsen to the lineup.

“I would just say overall it was a tough experience for me,” Viliunas said. “I wasn’t used to not playing because I’ve played my whole life. I think me being so inexperienced was not the best for the team, especially with all the other inexperience we had with the other freshmen that were playing. Annie was setting really well in practice, too. She definitely worked hard to get herself back in the starting lineup.”

One season later, there is no question who is running the offense. The backup setter, McKenna Kelsay, is a freshman. So is emergency setter Michelle Strizak, an outside hitter. No current Illini other than Viliunas ever has set in a college match.

For that reason, among others, it’s important that she stay injury-free. Unlike last season, a UI lineup without Viliunas is not a viable option. In Hambly’s view, his sophomore setter is ready for the challenge this time.

“I would say right now she’s physically, mentally and emotionally prepared for the first time to really be able to manage a college season,” he said. “Just being out there (last season) for some really big matches, she understands how hard you have to work and how hard it is to be out there. She’s matured.”

And, as more volleyball fans become acquainted with the Illini’s current starting setter, it’s possible they’ll learn to master the pronunciation of her last name.
If not, Viliunas says, just call her Lex.

“Especially with my (given) name being Alexis, people can screw it up by calling me Alex or Alexa or stuff like that,” she said. “Now, I’m just introducing myself as Lex.”
 

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