CHAMPAIGN — Rylee Hinton got her welcome to college volleyball moment in Illinois’ season-opening match. Playing a then-No. 19-ranked Tennessee on its own court with a record-setting crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena was definitely different than high school and club. Different than the four spring matches the Champaign Central graduate played in after enrolling at Illinois in January, too.
Hinton lasted two sets before being subbed out for fellow freshman middle blocker Kyla Swanson. Then she didn’t play in the immediate rematch against the Volunteers or in either of Illinois’ matches during the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge.
“You’re always competing,” Hinton said. “I don’t think there’s ever such a thing as, ‘You have the spot.’ Every day, every practice, you’re competing for your spot. I learned that and learned how to be a good teammate in the meantime. Even if I’m not playing, I’ve still got to be on the sidelines cheering.”
Hinton wound up on the other end of the middle blocker substitution pattern last weekend in the Redbird Classic. She finished with 13 kills and 15 blocks in nine sets of action and maybe earned back that starting spot as now-No. 19 Illinois (3-4) finishes nonconference play at the Bulldogs Brawl in Indianapolis on the Butler campus. The Illini play at 11 a.m. Friday against Pacific (6-3) and face Loyola Marymount (4-5) at 8 a.m. Saturday.
“After that first weekend against Tennessee where Kyla came in for her, she came in and worked extremely hard to fix some of the things she had to,” Illinois coach Chris Tamas said of Hinton. “Sometimes it’s matchup issues, and she provided the good matchup for us to put her in and go against those teams last weekend. ... It’s not usual for a freshman to step in and play — especially at this level.
“I think every week you just see improvement with all of them. I just think she does a nice job of coming in and working and really trying to work to continue her strengths and kind of just keep improving on her weaknesses.”
Hinton set career highs with five kills in Illinois’ five-set upset of No. 8 Marquette after posting four against both Central Florida and Illinois State. The eight blocks she had against the Redbirds was also a new career high.
Still, the start of Hinton’s career was not what she expected. That first Tennessee match was an eye-opener for the 6-foot-2 freshman.
“I feel like I had an unrealistic expectation coming in,” Hinton said. “I feel like when you get excited for things you don’t really think about, like, bad things happen. I’m not mad about it. It’s just life. Stuff happens, and you’ve got to roll with the punches.
“It was tough at first, but I’m honestly happy that it’s happening. I feel like I’m learning so much about myself and how to work through problems throughout this process. I’m not complaining at all.”
The combination of injuries and the occasional production issue has meant more lineup tinkering for Tamas this season than in either of his first two at Illinois. His preference, though, is still to find a consistent lineup. Sooner rather than later.
The lineup against Marquette wasn’t it — regular libero Morgan O’Brien was out with a concussion — but Tamas didn’t sub out any of his front row players, Hinton included.
“Based on the health and based on some performances we’ve had to make some changes,” Tamas said. “It’s OK for everybody to get a taste and see what it’s like so when it is their turn again, they’ll know what it’s like to step in and be ready.”
That’s been one of the challenges for Hinton and the other Illini newcomers in the early part of the season. Adjusting to filling a role — rather than being an automatic go-to player — was a change.
“Everybody that comes here is like the star of their high school, but when you get here, you’re not the star anymore,” Hinton said. “The mental adjustment to that is huge, but I think everyone is handling it really well. I’m competing with three other middles basically, but I would consider them some of my closest friends off the court.
“I think we’re doing a good job. You just have to be ready to go in at all times. That’s how everybody feels. You never know what can happen, always be ready and just find ways that you can contribute.”