Touted freshman joins fray

CHAMPAIGN — Perhaps it was the sight of several true freshmen on the other side of the net making an impact.

More likely, it was the sight of a struggling Illinois attack in need of a lift, regardless of the source.

Whatever the motivation, Illini volleyball coach Kevin Hambly decided to wait no longer Saturday to start the eligibility clock of highly touted freshman Michelle Strizak.

In the midst of  Illinois’ rocky second set in a 3-0 loss to No. 12 Nebraska, PrepVolleyball.com’s  22nd-ranked player in the Class of 2013 made her first appearance in a collegiate match.

With that, Hambly made it official: There will be no redshirting the reigning Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year, as he had seriously contemplated through the Illini’s previous 11 matches of the season.

“We’ve been struggling to score points, and she can score points,” Hambly said. “The rest of her game needs to develop, as every freshman’s does, but you saw tonight she had the ability to score.”

The No. 24 Illini needed more than a promising debut from the 6-foot-1 outside hitter to cope with Nebraska. With freshman Kadie Rolfzen belting a match-high 14 kills and twin sister Amber contributing seven digs and five block assists, the Cornhuskers won 25-20, 25-14, 25-22 at a toasty Huff Hall in front of 3,476 fans and a BTN national audience.

“They’re  a better volleyball team than us right now,” Hambly said after Nebraska (9-2, 2-0 Big Ten) won for the eighth time in nine matches. “They played better volleyball all around. The opportunity is there for us to grow a lot. We need to start growing.”

Strizak entered Saturday’s match with Illinois (5-7, 1-1 Big Ten) trailing 9-4 in the second set. Playing only in the front row, Strizak finished with five kills and three errors in 11 swings. She gained traction as the match progressed, however, producing three kills in five swings in the third set.

“I’m really excited. Happy to play for this team,” Strizak said.

The Cincinnati native and Hambly both indicated Strizak was put on alert she might take the court Saturday.

“It was, ‘Hey, be ready. You could get in tonight if things don’t go the way we want them to,’ ” Hambly said. “She knew she had to be ready tonight, and she’s been tearing us up in practice. It was time.”

Strizak was diplomatic when asked whether she was glad she now is in the playing mix rather than continuing on a course toward redshirting.

“It’s a hard question,” she said. “I’ve always from the start been committed to this team this year and just doing whatever I can to help this team. I just want to do whatever’s best for this team.”

Illinois is on a 1-5 slide, four losses coming to ranked opponents. One night after sweeping Iowa in a highly encouraging performance, Illinois itself was swept for the second time in four matches.

“For the most part we weren’t doing the little things (against Nebraska) that would get us past the hump,” said Illini outside hitter Jocelynn Birks (team-high 13 kills). “The serve-pass game was not nearly as good as it was (Friday).”

The Illini will play their next four matches on the road, starting with trips next weekend to No. 15 Michigan State (which knocked off No. 1 Penn State on Friday) and No. 10 Michigan.

“I’m disappointed because I thought we could play better (against Nebraska),” Hambly said. “Win or lose, you just want to see your team move in a good direction. We mostly need to start playing the way we’re capable of. Things just haven’t clicked so far.”

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