CHAMPAIGN — Jennifer Beltran was still about 22 months from suiting up for the Illinois volleyball team when she was a witness to history at her future college court.
While on a campus visit in the fall of 2008, the then-high school junior watched from the Huff Hall stands as Illini libero Ashley Edinger broke the school record for career digs during a victory against Ohio State.
Afterward, the Reseda, Calif., commitment — and heir apparent to Edinger — was invited to join the Illini in their downstairs locker room. There, then-UI head coach Don Hardin gathered his players to address the Illini junior’s historic accomplishment and offer his congratulations.
Beltran was all ears, and what she heard next clearly was directed as much at her as it was at Edinger.
“He said something about putting the record at a high standard so the next person can come and try and break it,” Beltran recalled this week.
And just so there would be no mistaking the intent of his words, Hardin then looked in Beltran’s direction and flashed a quick smile.
“It was just really funny,” she said.
The next person did indeed supplant Edinger atop the all-time Illini digs chart. Beltran, now in her fourth season as the team’s starting libero, created her own history last Saturday as Illinois was sweeping Indiana on the road. With her fourth of 11 digs that night, the 5-foot-9 senior claimed the record as her own.
She already held the UI record for single-season digs, a category in which her name appears in three of the top six spots.
“It’s definitely nice to be a part of history,” Beltran said. “When I first came to Illinois and committed, I wanted to be a part of something new. I wanted to leave a legacy of some type, and not just this (record). ... I’m proud to be a part of it and honored.”
And far from done with digging up shots. With 14 regular-season matches remaining — along with the possibility of an NCAA tournament bid — Beltran is positioned to set the bar at extraordinary heights for any future Illini with ambitions on the school career digs record.
“It’s nice to have gotten this far, as of now, but I’m still working for more,” she said.
Should Beltran finish the season with at least 500 digs — a figure she’s reached in each of her first three years at Illinois — she also would end her career No. 2 in Big Ten history.
Considering Beltran’s personal history of reporting for duty, there’s nothing to suggest she won’t keep climbing the conference ladder. In contrast to Edinger — who as a senior suffered a season-ending knee-ligament tear with eight regular-season matches left — Beltran has experienced good fortune in avoiding injury. In fact, the durable libero has played in 114 of a possible 116 Illini matches during her career.
“She’s been Miss Reliable, and it’s been nice to have that kind of just a rock all the time,” fifth-year UI head coach Kevin Hambly said. “She’s a really strong, physical kid. She’s one of our stronger kids in the weight room. She just takes care of herself in a really good manner.”
Hambly’s appreciation for what Beltran has contributed to the program extends far beyond her volleyball skills and the leadership role the senior fully embraced this year. In Hambly’s view, Beltran’s verbal commitment in late 2007 as a high school sophomore set in motion a wave of recruiting success that ultimately carried Illinois to an NCAA runner-up finish in 2011.
At the time of her commitment, Beltran already had been in USA Volleyball’s High Performance development program since age 12 and was the libero for the U.S, team that won the 2007 High Performance International Junior tournament.
With Beltran in the fold, then-Illini assistant Hambly had a persuasive argument to make while going head-to-head with established volleyball powers for other top-tier recruits. Nine months later, middle blocker and classmate Anna Dorn of Munster, Ind., followed Beltran’s Illini lead. In the next recruiting class, right-side hitter Liz McMahon of suburban Cincinnati committed to Illinois. Dorn was rated the nation’s No. 6 player in her class; McMahon was No. 3.
“Every attacker wants a good libero,” Hambly said. “Like ‘I want to make sure I get some passes. If this libero is willing to go out to Illinois, there’s got to be something going on there.’
“We might not get Dorn or McMahon — those kind of national-caliber kids — if she did not come.”
Dorn confirms that Beltran’s choice greatly influenced her own.
“When Kevin was trying to sell me on the idea of Illinois, he said ‘We’re going to get great recruits. We’re going to be great,” the redshirt junior said. “But when J-Bo committed, it was like, ‘Now I see what you’re saying.’
“J-Bo was such a highly-touted recruit, so to have her commit here meant that big things could happen here. For me, that gave me a lot of confidence that, ‘OK, other people are buying into this idea as well.’ ”
Now, the clock is ticking louder on the career of a libero who took a leap of faith and played pied piper for the UI volleyball program.
Whatever transpires in these final weeks of her career, Beltran’s legacy is secure. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if her career digs record is, too, for years to come.
“That is a huge accomplishment for her,” Dorn said. “It’s just nice to see someone who works so hard and cares so much about the program to have that kind of honor.”