CHAMPAIGN — Illinois volleyball coach Chris Tamas has touted his team’s depth leading into the 2019 season. Enough depth, in theory, that the Illini coaching staff should have been able to split the team down the middle for Saturday evening’s Orange & Blue Scrimmage.
Should have being the operative phrase.
Already down freshman outside hitter Ellie Holzman, who is out for the season, Illinois scrimmaged Saturday at Huff Hall without redshirt senior outside hitter Beth Prince, junior outside hitter/opposite Emily Hollowell and sophomore setter Mica Allison.
“I think a lot of our players that are off could obviously contribute in lots of ways,” Illinois assistant coach Alfee Reft said. Ilini coach Chris Tamas was unavailable after Saturday’s scrimmage with a previous commitment to appear at the Sights and Sounds event for incoming Illinois freshmen.
“The focus with them is just get them healthy and see what they can do,” Reft continued about the players — other than Holzman — who sat out the scrimmage. “I think we have a lineup of 18 kids that can get on the court at any given moment and contribute to our team. It’s a good problem to have.”
The injured players necessitated bringing in two of the team’s male practice players for the scrimmage, and some of the Illini played for both sides. So while Orange beat Blue 3-1, the only constants on that side of the net were redshirt freshman setter Diana Brown, senior outside hitter Jacqueline Quade, junior libero Morgan O’Brien and senior defensive specialist Caroline Welsh.
“Obviously it doesn’t give us the depth we’d like to see, but it’s a nice thing that we have (14) girls that are still healthy,” Reft said. “The competition level at practice is still high. The ones that are healthy are still focused on what they’re doing. I don’t think we’re missing a beat.”
Some positional versatility was also necessary during Saturday’s scrimmage. Senior middle blocker Ashlyn Fleming also spent some time playing at outside hitter and opposite. Freshman middle blocker Kennedy Collins, who has played previously as an outside hitter in high school and club, had a similar role as a multi-positional player in the front row.
“With our coaching staff, they help us be prepared to play different positions and do those different things,” Fleming said. “Even though we’re just middles, they really kind of prepare us to be versatile players. That’s another component to be able to play outside, right side and serve balls. I’m just excited to do it and step out there and compete for the team.”
Reft said that versatility could be useful this season.
“It’s nice to see (Fleming) and a number of our other (players) able to flex and play in different positions,” the Illini assistant said. “I know Coach Tamas loves that. Hopefully it will be a strength of ours that we can move some pieces around.”
Illinois will open the 2019 season in five days with a 7 p.m. match at Tennessee. Getting healthy before facing the Volunteers could be key, but Fleming said there wasn’t one area of on-the-court play she felt the team needed to tighten up before the opener.
“I don’t know if I could pipoint one thing,” she said. “I think just other than volleyball, we could always communicate more and really mesh and connect and always talk to each other.”
What the Illini will have to lean on when they face Tennessee, though, is simply the experience of being on the court in uniform and in front of an audience from the scrimmage.
“This match, it always feels the same,” Reft said. “It’s a new group, so you’re building new chemistry with new players. For everyone, this match is just a nice easing into the season and a way for all of them to comfortable. Whether it’s practice or this match, every time we’re out there holds weight for us.”