CHAMPAIGN — Mica Allison hadn’t really drawn the connection in her mind that Friday’s return trip to Redbird Arena on the Illinois State campus would be her first time there since a rather memorable moment in her volleyball career. Not until a helpful reminder from her grandma.
“Actually, it’s funny,” Allison said. “My grandma, she was over the other day and was like, ‘It’s where you won state!’ It kind of took me a second before I was like, ‘Oh, yeah!’
“I didn’t even think about that when I was thinking about playing at ISU. It was more the team and who I was with and those moments — not necessarily just ISU. It is pretty cool to think the last time I was there we did win a state championship.”
Allison will return to Illinois State this weekend with Illinois volleyball for three matches in the Redbird Classic. First up will be host ISU at 7 p.m. Friday and her first time back on the newly-renovated Redbird Arena floor since leading St. Thomas More to the 2017 Class 2A state championship. A photo of the celebrating Sabers still graces the main girls’ volleyball page on the IHSA website.
Three matches this weekend against NCAA tournament teams from a year ago provide Illinois (2-2) with a chance to get back on track after dropping both of its matches this past weekend at the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge in Iowa City, Iowa. After facing Illinois State (5-1) on Friday night, the No. 14 Illini will play UCF (5-1) at 10 a.m. Saturday and No. 7 Marquette (5-1) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
“We’re setting some scouts up in how we’re going to defend teams, but ultimately it’s what happens on our side of the court,” Allison said. “We’re working on a lot of team stuff — like team culture stuff — and being better teammates. If you’re a good teammate and there for your people, then things are kind of just going to work out on their own.”
Allison’s return to Redbird Arena might also see the Illinois sophomore playing a similar role to the one she held at St. Thomas More. A leg injury kept the White Heath native out of the first three matches of the season, and with redshirt freshman Diana Brown playing well at setter, the 6-foot-1 Allison saw time at opposite hitter against Colorado, where she had two kills on six attacks in the three-set loss to the now-19th-ranked Buffaloes.
“I love hitting,” she said. “It’s just kind of like I get my mind off of things. When you’re a setter, you think about everything. When you’re a hitter, you’re relying on your other setter kind of to be the captain of the court. It’s really fun hitting and getting my mind off of things. It’s been a while since I’ve done both, so it’s fun getting back into it.”
Illinois was back to full strength this weekend with Allison available along with outside hitters Beth Prince and Bruna Vrankovic. That gave Illini coach Chris Tamas the depth he touted heading into the season. That depth also provides Tamas with more versatility — like using Allison at opposite — as he tinkered with his lineup both out of necessity and now availability through the first four matches.
“You’d like to just run with just one single lineup,” Tamas said. “We did it all last year. We knew what the lineup was. There was not much interchanging going on. In some ways, that makes it easier. In this way, too, we have a lot of people that can do lots of things. Like we saw against Colorado, some of the performances were lacking after set one. It makes it easier just to say, ‘Hey, we know we have people on the bench that can pick up and step in and do the job.’”
Tamas is comfortable using his depth at this point of the season to find the best lineup. He won’t pull players for just a mistake or two, but he showed in the Colorado match that he’s willing to shake things up in an attempt to get better results.
“It’s more of just a feeling we have as coaches on the sideline just observing and making sure they’re ready to play the game,” Tamas said. “If they’re not, we have someone else that’s ready to come play the game, too.”
A healthy Brown, coupled with Allison’s injury, made Tamas’ decision ahead of the season-opening matches against Tennessee an easy one. Brown was the only option. The Columbus, Ohio, native has played well given the opportunity and ranks fifth in the Big Ten in assists per set.
Allison still has the ability to produce as a hitter. She finished her state champion senior season at St. Thomas More with 328 kills while playing both setter and opposite in the Sabers’ 6-2 system.
“I haven’t done a lot of training with my hitting,” Allison said. “It’s always kind of come naturally to me. I don’t know how. That’s one thing Chris says. We need to work more on my setting than hitting because I just kind of know. I’m not trying to brag — I’m not good — but it’s comfortable to me. I just see the court well and can hit some shots.”
Allison ran a 5-1 as the only setter in her lone season at Auburn. She did play both positions this spring when Tamas ran a 6-2 with her and Brown, and he knew she could slide back into a strictly hitter role against Colorado.
“Good volleyball players are just that,” Tamas said. “They can come in and do it. As old as I am, I still think I could go set if I needed to. I think it’s just a mark of the type of player that we’re getting that they’re comfortable. You can go back and forth with really good players. It’s not always ideal just because, again, the time frames that we work in, but I feel comfortable in doing it.”
The idea of a Brown and Allison both seeing time at setter is still on the table, too, for the Illini.
“We train it all,” Tamas said. “They’re all comfortable flipping back and forth if we have to, and we might see some of that moving into the future here.”