CHAMPAIGN — Would you be surprised to know Jordyn Poulter sprained her ankle the day before Illinois volleyball's rematch with Nebraska in Lincoln?
That she hobbled around the morning of the Oct. 27 match during the Illini's serve-pass?
That Illinois coach Chris Tamas was "fully prepared to not play her" against the Cornhuskers?
The results of that match — and how Poulter played — would seem to justify a pretty high level of surprise.
Poulter showed absolutely no signs of the injury. The Illini's 6-foot-2 senior setter put up what was then her 11th double-double of the season and 34th of her career in the four-set victory.
That performance put the finishing touches on her fifth Big Ten Setter of the Week honor, as she led Illinois to its first win against Nebraska since 2014.
"That's the epitome of who she is and how she wants to compete at this level," Tamas said.
Poulter showed off her overall skill set at setter this season, adding American Volleyball Coaches Association Northeast Region Player of the Year honors Tuesday to her Big Ten awards. It's her leadership, though, that Tamas said has grown the most as the Illini's NCAA tournament run continues in the Sweet 16 at 11 a.m. Friday against Marquette at Huff Hall.
"I think that's one of her biggest areas of improvement," said Tamas, who was also named AVCA Northeast Region Coach of the Year. "When I first came here, we talked about that a lot. When she's going to touch every other ball, the skill set's important but it's also how she manages the situation. How she's able to manipulate game plans and stuff like that has just been very impressive."
Tamas being able to relate to Poulter setter to setter is vital. Daily conversations about how to connect with each of her teammates on the court and knowing what the Illini needs from her, Poulter said, have contributed to her and her team's success.
"Because he was a setter and he played at the highest level, everything that happens to me in this gym he's gone through multiple times," Poulter said. "I think he knows how to communicate that with me and knows how to tell me how he approached it."
What Tamas hasn't done, however, is change what makes Poulter unique. He's let Poulter be herself and simply tried to direct her competitive streak to where it would be most effective.
"I think trying to harness kind of what I'm feeling in the moment is the best way I can describe it," Poulter said. "The longer that you play with anyone, the easier it is for them to know your personalities. This year we have a really good grasp on what everyone needs in certain moments. Chris helped me realize that over the last year-and-a-half."
Tamas did so without stripping Poulter of her passion.
"Her intensity is very impressive," the Illinois coach said. "You need to let people like that be emotive in those situations, but there's different ways of handling that. ... I want her to be an ultimate competitor, and she is and she's shown the team how to do that. The team really understands how to play with her as well. That leadership component is a big deal."
That leadership has helped propel Illinois (30-3) to another Sweet 16. But it's not all Marquette (28-6) will have to contend with Friday morning at Huff.
Senior middle blocker Ali Bastianelli and junior outside hitter Jacqueline Quade were named AVCA All-Region alongside Poulter. Bastianelli, the Illini's all-time career blocks leader, has 274 kills and 168 blocks this year. Quade leads Illinois with 495 kills and also has 233 digs.