CHAMPAIGN — No one connected with the Illinois volleyball program, it seems, was surprised by the breakout party Maddie Mayers staged last weekend at the Walter Pyramid in Long Beach, Calif.
No one, that is, except the redshirt freshman herself.
“Honestly, I didn’t think it would go so well,” Mayers said this week after a practice at Huff Hall. “I didn’t think it would go bad, but I’m really happy with how it went.”
Considering that Mayers had never played in a college match before the Illini’s season-opening tournament at Long Beach State, it’s hard to imagine things going any better for the 6-foot-4 middle blocker.
One measure of that is the awards that followed Mayers’ high-impact performances against some of the nation’s top programs, including two Top 20 opponents.
After racking up 29 kills and a team-high 20 blocks in three matches, the Fort Wayne, Ind., native was selected to the Long Beach State Mizuno Invitational all-tournament team and named Big Ten Freshman of the Week.
“I’m not surprised,” Illini coach Kevin Hambly said. “She’s been kicking butt in practice. ... My expectations are that she’s going to be really good for us.”
Count Erin Johnson, too, among those not taken off guard by Mayers’ eye-catching debut. Now an Illini student assistant coach, Johnson was a teammate of Mayers last season and practiced side-by-side with the then-true freshman as a fellow middle blocker.
“I don’t know if I’m surprised,” said Johnson, who ranks No. 6 on the UI career blocks list. “She has the ability to be a really great player, and I don’t even know if she knows that.”
If not, perhaps it’s because her true freshman season was a sobering introduction to this level of the sport. Although Mayers arrived at the UI with Division I physical talents, her volleyball techniques and skills were raw and in need of upgrading. Hence the decision by Hambly to redshirt the player ranked 76th in her senior class by PrepVolleyball.com.
“If we didn’t redshirt her, she (still) would not have been able to play last year,” the Illini coach said.
By last spring, however, and continuing through the team’s late-May playing tour in Italy, Mayers was showing major progress that has carried into this season.
“I think she’s made as big a jump as anybody over the spring,” Hambly said. “Credit to her, how hard she’s willing to work. But she’s going to be good for us.”
Given her height and leaping ability, it probably should come as no surprise that Mayers quickly made her presence felt defensively. More of an eye-opener was her immediate — and prolific — contributions on the attack. She hit a sizzling .625 in 16 swings in her debut against then-No. 18 Florida State and .458 in 24 attacks against then-No. 17 Kentucky in her third match. Overall, Mayers converted 29 of her 58 swings into points.
“I think as she got into a rhythm she started to feel more and more confident,” Johnson said. “And you could tell Lex (Viliunas) felt confident in setting the ball to her. ... I think she was very reliable (on offense) all weekend.”
Mayers was particularly effective on the slide play, on which a player curls toward the pin and, while on the move, takes a leaping swing. It’s an attack at which Johnson thrived for years, but her graduation left a void that Mayers appears ready and able to fill.
“We need a legitimate slide hitter, and she is that for us,” Hambly said. “She’s a really high jumper off of two feet, but she’s even higher off one. We don’t measure it off one, but if she’s not 10 (feet), 6 inches, I’d be surprised, which is maybe the highest we’ve had off one foot.”
As Mayers learned last weekend, success does not go unnoticed by opponents. Her big debut against Florida State alerted Illinois’ second opponent, Long Beach State, to Mayers’ capabilities. With the 49ers paying more defensive attention to her, Mayers committed six hitting errors in 18 swings.
Illinois’ third opponent, Kentucky, regarded Mayers as enough of a priority that it often sent two blockers at her, which forced the Wildcats to defend the Illini’s most prolific scorer, outside hitter Jocelynn Birks, one on one.
That didn’t keep Mayers from belting 13 kills — or from limiting her hitting errors to two — against the Wildcats.
“She was still scoring because she’s so high and she can hit over the block,” Hambly said.
For Mayers, of course, the challenge will be to approach this performance level in most matches. To be a consistent impact player. She and Hambly already have had that discussion.
“I raised the bar for myself (last weekend),” Mayers said. “Kevin said, ‘I expect that from you all the time now.’ ”
Iowa State Challenge preview
Schedule (at Ames, Iowa)
FRIDAY — No. 14 San Diego (2-1) vs. No. 11 Iowa State (4-0), 6:30 p.m.
SATURDAY — No. 18 Illinois (2-1) vs. San Diego, noon
SUNDAY — Illinois vs. Iowa State, 2 p.m.
Setting the scene
After knocking off two Top 20 opponents in a season-opening tournament, the newly ranked Illini wade into some more stiff competition. Like Illinois, San Diego moved into the AVCA Top 25 this week following a strong performance in Hawaii’s Rainbow Wahine Invitational. The Toreros extended defending national champion and then-No. 1 Texas to five sets before losing. Then San Diego knocked off a Hawaii team that earlier had defeated Texas. The Illini will need to be particularly aware of the offensive prowess of senior middle blocker Katie Hoekman, the reigning West Coast Conference Player of the Week, who pounded 45 kills and hit .470 in the Hawaii tournament. But UI coach Kevin Hambly is just as aware of how difficult it can be to score on San Diego. “They’re a tough team to play at this time of year because their ball control is ahead of everybody else,” he said. “The big, physical teams kind of catch up (with ball control) at the end of the year, but right now we’re going to be tested. They’re going to dig a bunch of balls like Long Beach (State) did (while defeating Illinois). And they’re bigger and more physical than Long Beach in some ways, so we’ve got to be ready.” The Illini are highly familiar with Iowa State, having split two matches with the Cyclones in the 2012 Illini Classic. Illinois will remember sophomore right-side hitter Mackenzie Bigbee, who racked up 25 kills in the second match. “They have some major weapons,” Hambly said. “(They have) three legitimate scorers. They’d be as good as anyone we’d see in the Big Ten.”
The Illini’s versatility was apparent in their final match last weekend at the Long Beach State Mizuno Invitational. Trailing then-No. 17 Kentucky two sets to one, Hambly moved an offensive-struggling Liz McMahon from outside hitter to the right side and replaced her with Morganne Criswell. The move paid off as Criswell produced four kills in eight swings and McMahon slowed the Wildcat attack, finishing with 10 blocks, including one solo. Hambly said he still was contemplating where to utilize McMahon this weekend. “We’re still looking at what we think is better right now in practice,” he said. “And we’ll see in the matches. It could be the matchup situation works out better with her on the right. We can do both, and I don’t want to commit to either one.” ... Hambly expects to have middle blocker Anna Dorn available for both matches this weekend. The redshirt junior, who had knee surgery in January to address cartilage damage, sat out the second of two matches on the Illini’s opening day of the season. However, Dorn returned the next day and played in all five sets against Kentucky. Sitting the third-year starter was precautionary, according to Hambly, who indicated that Dorn has felt no pain in the knee but has experienced some swelling. “We’re just trying to be careful with her,” he said. “We want to have her at the end of the year. I think she’s capable of playing one match a day right now. We don’t want to push her too much.”