CHAMPAIGN — Jennifer Beltran arrived at Illinois in 2010 as part of the seventh-ranked volleyball recruiting class in the nation.
When the record-setting libero is honored Saturday on Senior Night at Huff Hall, Beltran will be the lone member of that highly regarded three-player group to be recognized.
“Things change over the years,” Beltran said Friday following practice.
They did for Beltran’s original Illini classmates. Middle blocker Anna Dorn won’t accompany Beltran to center court Saturday night because the redshirt junior has another year of eligibility due to a season-ending knee injury as a freshman.
The third member of the class, outside hitter Jazmine Orozco, opted to transfer to Pepperdine following her sophomore year. Orozco was not medically cleared to play this season after suffering the latest in a series of concussions in May during a sand volleyball match. However, she is hopeful of returning to the court in 2014 as a fifth-year senior, according to a Pepperdine official.
Beltran won’t be alone, however, in being recognized Saturday night. Defensive specialist Courtney Abrahamovich, a non-scholarship senior who joined the program in 2010 as a walk-on, also will be honored.
“Every year things change, and now it’s just me and Court, which is nice,” said Beltran, the Illini career digs leader. “We’ve kind of grown up together in these short years that we’ve been together.”
Among those who’ll be on hand for the Reseda, Calif., native’s final regular season home match are her parents. Gustavo and Virna Beltran, as well as their son Isaiah, are making the trip from their southern California home. Gustavo had served as a father figure in Beltran’s life since she was in kindergarten. He later assisted in her volleyball opportunities and development, eventually even welcoming her to live with his family. On Aug. 5, 2011, the former Jennifer Bonilla legally changed her last name to Beltran.
“Having Gustavo there (at Senior Night) and his family means the world because they’ve been there for volleyball this whole time, and they’ve always wanted me to go to college and to graduate,” she said. “So it’s really nice for them to experience that with me.”
No. 11 Minnesota (26-6, 14-5 Big Ten) at No. 18 Illinois (16-13, 12-7 Big Ten), 7 p.m.
Setting the scene
It’s the Illini’s final opportunity to raise their stock with the NCAA tournament committee before Selection Sunday. Considering their stretch-run surge (7-1 record in the last eight matches) and ranking in the NCAA’s Rating Percentage Index (No. 17), a victory against the Gophers (No. 13 RPI) might be the clincher in persuading the committee to include the Illini among the coveted top 16 seeds. We say coveted because seeded teams automatically host first- and second-round matches. “I think if we don’t win (today) there’s still a chance, but I think if we do we’ve got a really good shot at hosting,” said coach Kevin Hambly, whose Illini are 8-4 at home this season. “I don’t know that it’s a guarantee.” It would benefit Illinois’ cause if the committee puts heavy emphasis on how a team has performed during the past month or so. A win against Minnesota would give Illinois an 8-2 record in the second half of the Big Ten race. The lone losses were to current No. 1 Penn State and No. 10 Nebraska. And each was on the road. ... This is the Illini’s lone meeting of the regular season against Minnesota. The Gophers swept last season’s two-match series and have won four of the last five meetings. “We’re playing a whole lot better, and I feel better about our chances than I did last year in either match we played,” Hambly said. “And being at home is going to help. But they’re tough. They play a similar style to us so it will be interesting to see how the kids respond.”
Illini update: By defeating Northwestern on Wednesday, Illinois assured itself of finishing the regular season with a winning record. The Illini also clinched a plus-.500 record for the entire campaign, regardless of what happens Saturday night or in the NCAA tournament. This will be Illinois’ sixth winning record in seven seasons, the exception coming last year during a 14-16 finish. ... With a win Saturday night, the Illini would improve to 10-10 against ranked opponents. Illinois is 5-2 in its last seven matches against Top 25 foes. ... Junior Liz McMahon joined the Illini’s 1,000-kill club in the victory against the Wildcats. With 11 kills, the right-side hitter raised her career total to 1,003. To break into the UI’s all-time top 10, McMahon would need 1,228 kills. ... McMahon hit .500 in 16 swings against Northwestern, tying her season high for attack percentage. Her career high is .800, set as a freshman against Middle Tennessee State.
About Minnesota: The Gophers are 8-2 in their last 10 matches, with each defeat to a higher-ranked team (Penn State, Nebraska). On Wednesday, Minnesota avenged an earlier loss to No. 13 Wisconsin, rallying from a first-set loss to win in four. ... Two Gophers received Big Ten weekly awards Monday. Senior outside hitter Ashley Wittman was named Big Ten Player of the Week after producing a pair of double-doubles (kills, digs) in victories against Michigan and Michigan State. Senior middle blocker Tori Dixon was selected Defensive Player of the Week for the fifth time this season following a 13-block weekend during which she also hit .360. ... It’s rare for a middle blocker to lead a team in kills, but Dixon has done so 17 times this season after belting 15 against Wisconsin. ... In conference matches, the Gophers rank among the top three in hitting percentage, opponent hitting percentage, blocks and digs.