Poulter is running the show for Illinois

Poulter is running the show for Illinois

CHAMPAIGN — Jordyn Poulter’s physical tools are apparent.

At 6-foot-2, the Illinois junior is one of the best blocking setters in the country. Her physicality at the net can change matches. 

But it’s only part of her game. Poulter’s creativity as a setter — fueled by a similar nature in her pursuits off the court — adds another level to her game.

Like the sets she makes sliding on her knees across the court while still bettering a ball to one of the Illini attackers. Or the times she reads opposing defenses to find holes to dump surprise attacks of her own.

Poulter has served as a linchpin to Illinois’ success this season and a key reason the Illini (23-10) are still alive in the NCAA tournament with a Sweet 16 matchup with Big Ten rival Michigan State (23-8) set for 3 p.m. today in State College, Pa.

First-year Illinois coach Chris Tamas knew what Poulter was capable of on the court after coaching against her the past two seasons while an assistant at Nebraska. He’s let her run with it this fall.

“I think for me it was just letting her be herself and try to create the best system around her as possible,” Tamas said. “The setter is your quarterback, your point guard, whatever analogy you want to use. The fact she’s playing well and is comfortable with the system and how we’re playing is a big factor for us.”

Tamas essentially handed Poulter the reins to the Illinois offense this season. She said it was a “freeing” feeling.

“Going into matches, there’s not a ton of information he gives me,” Poulter continued. “You get to kind of figure out what the other side is doing in the first 10 points or so and then really navigate the offense.

“I think with our passing being as good as it has been — especially in the last month or so — it’s been really fun to get to kind of run the show how I want to and what is most effective for our attackers to succeed.”

That lines up with Poulter’s creative nature. She sees setting as the most creative position in volleyball, which gives her another outlet to express her flair.

The Aurora, Colo., native is studying cinema and media studies at Illinois. Her dream is to become a filmmaker, and with an added minor in history, is interested in making historical films and documentaries.

Recounting her own experiences as a Division I athlete is on her list, too.

“It would be great to make a good sports film that encompasses female collegiate athletes’ experiences because I feel like in most films they focus a lot on what’s happening on the court,” Poulter said. “We’re only in here for three hours a day, and then we have other things going on the rest of the day and in our lives. … I really like where I’m at in college. The classes I’m taking have been intellectually stimulating, and I think that’s fun for me.”

Poulter has made it a point to keep pursuing her passions beyond volleyball. She recognizes it’s just one part of her life that she won’t have in her life forever. Her creative pursuits — particularly music — have also kept her centered during volleyball season.

Poulter played guitar in high school and taught herself piano during her freshman year at Illinois. Many more trips to the free piano rooms at “The Ike” followed.

“Initially, my freshman year when I started playing the piano it was during a time in the season where I needed to get my mind off of volleyball,” she said. “It was for sure a great escape for me and something that was able to separate my mind from the game. It makes me feel very calm when I’m playing music. It’s nice to have that outlet and escape.”

Poulter added another All-Big Ten honor to volleyball résumé this season and was named AVCA All-Northeast Region earlier this week in what could be a precursor to another All-American honor for the second straight season. She’s the only player in the Big Ten that ranked in the top 15 in assists and blocks through the end of the regular season.

Working with Tamas — a setter himself — elevated Poulter’s game to another level.

“I’ve been very fortunate in my entire volleyball career to have coaches who know the game really well and who were setters,” Poulter said. “I’ve been able to kind of take a piece from each coach I’ve had along the way and combine it into who I feel like I am right now.

“(Tamas) being the head coach and also being a setter, there’s a direct dialect and dialogue between points and in practice. … This year everything’s been able to be very efficiently communicated to me. Feeling that trust is really important.”

It’s a trust that’s reciprocated from Tamas.

“Because she’s so versatile, we’re allowed to play a lot of different styles of play. Even within these last few weeks we’re still adding new wrinkles, new plays, new speeds — all sorts of things she allows us to do. 

“Our passers have been doing a great job of getting her the ball, a ball that she can distribute, and she’s been doing a really nice job of decision making and executing game plans or stuff on the fly.”