CHAMPAIGN — Beth Prince has a fairly involved pre-match routine. First up is making sure to gather all of the Illinois volleyball seniors together before play starts. Their “Senior Hug” is something that group — Prince, Jacqueline Quade, Ashlyn Fleming and Caroline Welsh — started the second weekend of the season.
“We’ve forgotten a couple times, but I’ve made it my mission to never forget again,” Prince said.
Then comes Prince’s rather intricate handshake with Fleming. If you’re a Spider-Man fan and have seen “Homecoming,” it will seem pretty familiar. It’s the same secret handshake Peter Parker shares with his best friend Ned.
“They do it where they’re looking away from each other,” Prince said. “We can’t do that yet. I think that’s the end goal. Maybe by December.”
Handshake complete, Prince settles into her spot, standing of course, next to the Illinois bench with the other Illini not currently playing. Except for one full match against Washington and part of another against Colorado in last month’s Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge, Prince has been a spectator. An abdominal injury has her evaluated daily, and there’s no telling if she’ll play at 6 p.m. Friday at Indiana or 2 p.m. Sunday at Purdue when No. 18 Illinois (6-5, 1-1 Big Ten) visits her home state.
“It sucks, to be frank,” Prince said of dealing with the injury. “It’s not fun to be in this position, but it doesn’t help the team if I’m sulking. So I do my best not to do that and still help in whatever ways I can.”
Prince probably has more experience being sidelined by injuries than she’d like. After winning a second state championship for Avon (Ind.) as a high school junior in 2013, she dealt with a serious ankle injury that necessitated surgery. Another less serious ankle injury early in her freshman season at Illinois in 2015 kept her sidelined enough that a redshirt was the option. Shoulder trouble last year cost her the first weekend of the season, but she still managed to post the third-most kills one the team (310) during the run to the Final Four.
But this injury, this season, is different.
“That redshirt freshman year when you’re just not going to play, there’s no pressure in the world,” Prince said. “This year I’m not playing, but there’s all the pressure in the world. This is the last go-round for me and my fellow seniors. We all want to win. I think that gives me a little extra motivation to stay as engaged as I can throughout this process.”
Illinois coach Chris Tamas has mentioned multiple times how valuable Prince is even if she’s not on the court. She’s long been an emotional leader for the Illini, and that hasn’t changed even as she’s dealing with another injury.
“She just adds a lot with her presence,” Tamas said. “How she cares for the team. How she goes about just being herself. It’s been great ever since I’ve been here. Obviously, we’d like to have her on the court and get her back out there, but we ask everyone does as best they can no matter what role they’re in. Right now, this happens to be her role, and she’s doing a tremendous job of doing it and really leading from the outside.”
Prince also tries to help Illinois’ other pin hitters during the match. She has a different vantage point from the bench, and shares her insights with Quade, Megan Cooney and Bruna Vrankovic.
“I try to help out our outsides as much as I can with what shots I think they have and what the defense is doing against each of the pin hitters,” Prince said. “I try to let them know what they have open and what I’m seeing. They take what they want, and that’s totally fine. Sometimes they see other things. Whatever works.”
There’s no timetable for Prince’s return. While that would make the process easier, her own experiences means she knows that’s not always possible.
“It’s a day-by-day kind of thing,” Prince said. “We’re working through it and figuring stuff out as we go. You’d always like a timeline, but everybody I know that’s been hurt — including myself — timelines are not always accurate anyway. I guess while it would be nice to think that, ‘Oh, on Oct. 3 I will be ready to go,’ that’s just not how it would work.”
Prince not losing her spark and the energy she brings to the team no matter her location on the court speaks volumes about her character, according to Tamas.
“It’s not easy to be on the sideline when you want to be out there even if you’re just talking about being in practice,” he said. “It can wear on people when it’s pretty much half of your life. She’s always embodied kind of the Illini spirit just being able to really bring a smile to lots of peoples’ faces and bring everybody up when they’re done and keep us going when we’re rolling. I really appreciate her contributions.”
Injury aside, this season was always going to be different for Prince. Redshirting in 2015 meant that she’d have this final season without Jordyn Poulter and Ali Bastianelli. That trio gave former Illinois coach Kevin Hambly the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation in 2015.
“Oh, it’s so weird,” Prince said. “It’s weird not having them here with me physically, but I still talk to them all the time. It’s like they’re here in my heart and all that sappy stuff.
“So much has changed here throughout my time that I don’t think I could have guessed this is what it would be. I’m so happy with the staff and so happy with my seniors and glad Ashlyn came into that mix. It’s been really, really fun. I’m still thankful for this last year, for sure.”