CHAMPAIGN — If Illinois volleyball fans are looking for reasons that explain their favorite team’s season-saving revival during the past month, Morganne Criswell might be as good a place to start as any.
The outside hitter’s emergence as a reliable point scorer ranks high on coach Kevin Hambly’s list of factors that propelled the No. 18 Illini to a 7-2 regular season finish and the winning record required to be eligible for the NCAA tournament.
“We might have made a run at some point (anyway),” Hambly said this week. “We might have made the tournament. But I think we got really good really fast when she started to score points.”
The Illini coach spent a good chunk of the season searching for a third dependable point-producer at the pin positions to join Jocelynn Birks and Liz McMahon.
“In the past, our success has been built on having three point scorers at the pins,” Hambly said. “Our system’s built for that.”
Redshirt sophomore Ali Stark, whose all-around skills make her a six-rotation player, was Hambly’s first choice. When Stark struggled to score, the UI coach went to Criswell, but the results were inconsistent.
“Kevin gave me some opportunities to play,” she said, “and sometimes I took advantage of those and sometimes I didn’t.”
In Match 12, Hambly even reversed course on his tentative plan to redshirt Michelle Strizak this season and put the freshman outside hitter on the court in his search for points.
“We were just trying to find something,” Hambly said.
It wasn’t until early November that this search achieved a breakthrough, courtesy of Criswell. The 6-foot-1 junior pounded 19 kills and hit .341 in 44 swings, playing a major role in the Illini’s critical come-from-behind victory against Michigan.
“That was kind of the turning point,” Criswell said.
And not just for the Decatur native. Since that point, Illinois’ and Criswell’s paths both have been on the rise.
“There’s no coincidence that when she started to score points, all the sudden we started to win a bunch of matches,” Hambly said.
Beginning with the victory against the Wolverines, Criswell has produced double figures in kills in five of eight matches (barely missing a sixth time with nine kills).
During her last eight matches, the former All-Stater from Decatur Lutheran High School is averaging 3.1 kills per set.
“Kevin said we just need people who can score and so I guess that’s my job,” Criswell said.
Her development into a rotation regular was a long time coming for a player ranked No. 33 in the nation in her senior class by PrepVolleyball.com. As a freshman, Criswell played in 11 sets. Last season, she appeared in 16 of the Illini’s 30 matches, primarily coming off the bench when Hambly was looking for an offensive spark.
When this season started, the junior again appeared headed for a limited role.
“It was tough because I love volleyball,” Criswell said. “I want to play every chance I get.”
Circumstances provided Criswell with several chances to prove herself. Finally, she seized one, giving Hambly’s attack the kind of balance he’d been seeking much of the season. Now Birks and McMahon aren’t being asked to do most of the heavy lifting on offense. Now opposing blocks have a third Illini pin hitter that requires their attention.
“Mo started to figure it out, and all the sudden she became a legitimate point scorer,” he said. “It took a lot of pressure off both Joss and Liz.”
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