CHAMPAIGN — Illinois volleyball opens its season in six days at Tennessee. The trip to Knoxville, Tenn., could be the Illini debut for potentially as many as 10 players. That’s how many newcomers, including redshirt freshman setter Diana Brown, Illinois coach Chris Tamas is working with this fall.
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One of those newcomers is guaranteed a start against the Volunteers. Senior Ashlyn Fleming is the only middle blocker back from last year’s Final Four run. The other options? True freshmen Rylee Hinton, Kyla Swanson and Kennedy Collins.
“It’s really close,” Hinton said. “I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m sure Chris will put the best player on the court, and I trust whatever decision that he makes. Regardless if I’m on the court or not, I’m going to be cheering for my teammates.”
Hinton has the most experience of that trio. The 6-foot-2 Champaign Central graduate enrolled early at Illinois and went through spring practices before playing on the Big Ten Foreign Tour team in Japan this summer.
Still, the competition this month in the practice gym with Swanson and Collins has pushed Hinton — particularly when it comes the mental side of the game.
“Competing against people every single day when it’s so close and wanting the spot so bad really challenges you mentally,” Hinton said. “They’ve made me mentally tougher and able to compete every single day. ... I’ve finally learned how to accept being challenged. I wanted to come to the Big Ten and be challenged, so I’m happy that I have teammates who challenge me every single day.”
Six days out from the season opener at Tennessee, the Illinois coaching staff isn’t providing any clarity on which of the three freshmen might start.
The two early matches against the Volunteers — they head to Huff Hall for an immediate Sept. 1 rematch — might provide the clearest sign.
“You don’t know until you know,” said assistant coach Rashinda Reed, who works with the middle blockers. “We’re going to try all these different lineups. As a staff, collectively, we talk about, ‘This might be the best lineup,’ but you won’t know until you actually put them in front of competition.
“What you see in a practice gym versus what you see when you’re on a big stage in front of a lot of people with different competitors you don’t know in front of you, you’re going to respond differently. We won’t know until we know.”
What Reed has seen from her three freshmen middles this month in practice is a willingness to compete as they simultaneously adjust to Big Ten volleyball.
“They all battle and all want to play,” she said. “It’s nice to see that fire and that fight within such young people. They’re absolute competitors.”
That collective competition elevates all of their games individually. Swanson considers that competition a good thing.
“I’d say it’s still up for grabs at this point,” the 6-4 Wahoo, Neb., native said. “We’re all just trying to do our best in the gym every day. We do 1-on-1 drills and really just challenge ourselves in our shots and our blocking moves. We build each other up.”
The first almost two weeks of practice have been a learning experience for Swanson and Collins. Where they are now in terms of developing their game is where Hinton started this past spring when she began her Illini career.
“Oh my gosh, I’ve made huge strides,” Hinton said. “I think back now and I’m like, ‘How did I play volleyball the way that I used to?’”
Beyond adapting to the speed of the college game — particularly the uptempo style Illinois coach Chris Tamas prefers — the biggest adjustment for Swanson and Collins has been in technique. They’re learning plenty of new ones from Reed and volunteer assistant coach Jen Tamas.
“They have so much knowledge that I’d never even heard of before I got here,” Collins said. “It’s been great taking it all in and learning different things to become a better middle blocker. Probably my arm swing techniques and my blocking techniques because I came in doing it all wrong. Them switching that up right away was a big help.”
“It’s been really great to have four sets of eyes on us at that position — Jen more focusing on the offensive part and then Rashinda on the defensive part,” Swanson added. “They have so much knowledge, and we’ve just really been trying to soak in the information they’re giving us. ... There’s so many minute details that I have to focus on and re-teach myself, even the fundamentals of some things I thought I knew well.”
Depth at several positions has added a different level of competition to the Illinois practice gym heading into this season.
It’s readily apparent at middle blocker where the three freshmen are pushing each other and even Fleming and Reed said they have been impressed by how much growth the younger middles have made in the short time the coaches have had them in the gym.
“They’re going to shock some people,” Reed said. “If you’re all competing for a position, you’re going to bring out your best. Automatically within that mindset you’re going to raise the level. You want the coaches to notice you. You want to be seen. You’re trying to prove yourself, and you’re showing each other what you can do.”