CHAMPAIGN — All it takes is one glance to Kennedy Collins for Illinois setter Diana Brown to know the junior middle blocker is locked in.
The two have developed a level of communication the past three seasons where the conversation — no matter it’s before a match or in big moments — is brief, yet meaningful.
“I look at her, and I’m like, ‘Ken, let’s go,” and she’s like, ‘I’m on it. Give me the ball,’” Brown said. “Ken’s a rock star. I can really always count on her. If I give her any type of ball, she’s going to put it in play or she’s going to put it down.”
What Collins has achieved this season is more than just progressive growth from one season to the next. The 6-foot-3 middle blocker has set career-highs across the board — 256 kills, a .334 hitting percentage and 118 blocks — as Illinois (20-11) gets set to face West Virginia (19-9) at 4 p.m. Friday in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky. Collins’ new career-highs go beyond what might be expected of a Big Ten middle blocker hitting their junior season.
Compared to her last full season in 2019, she’s nearly doubled her kills total, is far and away more efficient in the attack than she’s ever been and has the best block numbers since program record holder Ali Bastianelli graduated after the 2018 season.
“She’s made strides this year,” Brown said with emphasis. “It’s just really a testament to how hard she’s worked. She really exudes confidence in herself. That really helps me, too, as a setter. If somebody has confidence in themselves, I’m going to give you the ball.”
Collins understood her role was changing heading into the 2021 fall season. The Illinois coaches were going to ask more of her.
More in the attack.
“I knew this year my role was going to be huge, so I took time out to have the conversation with the coaches,” Collins said. “It motivated me to want to work and get better. … Just doing what I know what to do. Consistency was key for me this year.”
Collins hit double-digit kills in 11 matches this season and had at least eight in eight more for a balanced Illinois attack. She also had multiple blocks in 27 of 31 matches and compiled a season-high of eight blocks during wins against Illinois State and Rutgers.
“When Ken came in, she was a little piece of our offense and was learning how to block,” said Chris Tamas, the Illini’s coach who initially flipped the Zion-Benton graduate from Bradley in the recruiting process. “We were actually looking at her in a different position, as well, because she was capable of doing that. The last couple years — especially this year — she really filled a void for us in that M1 spot.
“That’s the middle that goes off of one foot behind the setter when it’s just them and one other hitter. A lot of defensive pressure gets put on that position. She’s risen her game to another level, and we feel comfortable going to her whenever we need to score a point. That’s huge.”
That trust in Collins from the Illinois coaching staff has come from her tackling the challenges Tamas and Co. gave her. Assistant coach Rashinda Reed, who works with the Illini middle blockers, said Collins figuring out what her role was as a middle blocker and how she could affect matches was the turning point in her growth this fall.
“Once she really owned that and owned her own abilities, I think that’s when she really started to thrive,” Reed said. “Sometimes, it’s a natural progression that does typically happen. What makes her special is the fact that there’s a drive that’s inside of her that she knows she has a very special ability.
“Ultimately, there’s a greatness within her and something she can tap into. You could see that happening with every single match.”
That Collins embraced the challenge presented by the Illinois staff this offseason is what’s stuck out to Tamas. It’s the only way forward. Everything the team does on the court is a challenge some way.
“You might come out of high school or out of club and be really good in your perspective level, but once you bump up to the next level, one, you’re going to have to do it in our own gym, and, two, you’re going to have to do it against the best in the country,” Tamas said. “Whatever we’ve thrown her way, she’s been able to do it. I’m sure if I told her you’ve got to go in there and pass, she’d go do it, too. That’s just who she is.”
Reed calls Collins an “old soul.” The confidence that Brown said just flows from the Zion native is a result of a level, mature approach.
“She’s established a level of trust from the very beginning,” Reed said. “Her teammates trust her. If there’s a mistake that’s made, they know she’s going to go after it and give it her all. What’s happened is she has truly evolved and matured into this very dominant force right now.”