RELATED CONTENT: Illinois volleyball season preview
It was a day after posting one of the most significant regular season victories in school history, a dominating straight sets win at No. 2 Texas, ending the Longhorns 25-match non-conference winning streak. With his club well on its way to defeating Florida A&M, Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly inserted highly-regarded freshman middle Anna Dorn into the line-up, hoping to get her feet wet at the collegiate level. Unfortunately in just her second appearance of the year, Dorn suffered an ACL tear in a play at the net and was lost for the season.
“If I look back on it, I was being selfish because I thought she could help us get a couple points, and I thought we had a chance to win the national championship that year,” Hambly said of his decision to play Dorn that year instead of redshirting her. “It was worth the investment I thought at the time.”
To be fair, Hambly may have been right. A year later, with Dorn in the line-up the Illini advanced all the way to the national championship match, winning an epic five-setter with USC in the national semifinals. But the 2010 tournament could have played out in a similar way. The Illini were the 8th national seed in the tourney and returned to Austin to face No. 9 Texas in the regional semifinals at the Sports Pavilion. After the Illini took the opening set, they were one point away from going up 2-0. However, the officials claimed the line judges interfered with set point and called for a replay. Texas went on to win the point, the set (26-24) and the match (3-2) then defeated No. 16 Purdue, an upset winner over No. 1 Florida, to advance to the Final Four. That’s how close the Illini were to making it there a year earlier.
While it’s fruitless to dwell on what could have been, the benefit for Illinois fans comes this year. Because of a medical hardship, Dorn was granted a fifth year of eligibility, meaning a year after her class graduated, Dorn is back, with the potential to give the Illini another shot at a magical year.
“For me I feel fortunate to have a last season to be able to end this without having to sacrifice a year,” Dorn said. “If I was done last year, I would have felt like it went by just way too fast.”
In addition to her rehabilitation, which included working on her strength, a factor in her susceptibility to the injury, she had the benefit of watching and learning under the school’s all-time leading blocker and the Big Ten’s block assist leader Johannah Bangert, who was a senior on that 2010 Sweet 16 team.
Now in her second year as the program’s Director of Operations, Bangert can see a real difference in Dorn’s game from four years ago.
“She’s made huge strides,” Bangert said. “When she came in as a freshman, she was really wiry. Since her injury, she has gotten so much stronger and more physical at the net and has become a tremendous blocker. She sees the ball really well, closes the block all the time and is really quick laterally. Knowing how far she has come, it’s fun to watch her play now.”
“The experience that I have gained following my injury allowed me to watch the older players, to figure out what Illinois volleyball is all about and how college volleyball operates, and learn what it takes to play in the Big Ten,” Dorn said. “That is something that is so invaluable that I wouldn’t have been able to gain if I had been out there playing.”
Since the injury, Dorn has been a three-year starter at middle blocker. In her first full-season, Dorn ranked fourth in the Big Ten and 31st in the nation in blocks per set (1.28) in Illinois’ run to the 2011 national championship match. She earned her nickname “the honey badger,” with 13 block assists in an historic five-set victory at Penn State, in which Dorn was the dominant factor in that decisive fifth set.
Dorn’s numbers have continued to be consistent over the past two seasons, which include three straight seasons with at least 100 kills, 100 blocks and a .300 hitting percentage.
Unfortunately, her progress was slowed at the end of the 2012 season, when she tore cartilage in her femur of the same leg as her ACL tear, causing her to miss most of the spring workouts in 2013.
“Anna’s really turned into a blocker like Bangert now,” Hambly said. “She really understands the game. Physically, she’s jumping back to where she was before her injury (with a 10-5 vertical leap). Unfortunately, she hasn’t been healthy enough to put the time in to really develop offensively. Now that she’s practicing all the time with the team, we hope we can get her to where her potential was pointing in that area.”
“I think for the first time since I got initially injured with the ACL tear, I feel like my body has recovered to the point that I’m able to jump just as high as I could back then,” Dorn said. “It’s just a great feeling knowing that all the lifting, working out and conditioning have paid off in that respect. It definitely feels good to have gone through a full spring this year and I feel a lot more prepared. ”
In addition to the practice time, Dorn had the benefit during this spring of being pushed by a talented group of middles, sophomores Maddie Mayers and Katie Stadick as well as junior Kathryn Polkhoff.
“It helps that we have some fantastic middles in this group that are so incredibly talented and athletic and we all push each other all the time,” Dorn said. “It’s assumed that if you’re not playing well, someone else is there to take your spot. For me that was a motivation that I need to continue to get better all the time. I know that just because I’m a senior doesn’t mean I’m going to play because we have some really fantastic underclassmen that can fill that role as well.”
Despite her two physical setbacks, Dorn is not backing down from playing hard, although the coaches and trainers are keeping a close eye on conditions that put her jeopardy.
“This spring I worked to push my own limits physically, mentally and emotionally out on the court,” Dorn said. “There wasn’t anything I could do to hurt myself more. It was a matter of dealing with the pain. I’ve worked a lot with our trainers to make sure that I have the muscular strength and ability to be able to push myself harder and harder every day. We monitor it closely and do rehab on it all the time, but it’s been holding up quite well.”
While some upperclassmen tend to play the part of firing up her teammates, Hambly indicates Dorn plays a different role off the court.
“She is the voice of reason,” he said. “She’s still tough and competes hard and all that, but she’s more of the wise old vet that has a calm demeanor about her. In the team room, she’s not anxious, which has a positive affect on everybody.”
Illinois did not make the tournament in 2012, but used a strong second-half run to parlay into another Sweet 16 campaign in 2013. What was the difference down the stretch?
“I think that we figured out how to go in there with a little more confidence,” Dorn said. “After 2012, I think our confidence was a little shot in that we didn’t always believe that we could win even though we were perhaps more talented than some of our opponents. Just being able to play and put everything out there and not have fear when you step out on the court was huge for us. We developed a strong fighting mentality.”
Dorn said the depth is what separates the 2014 version of the Fighting Illini from even 2011 the national-runner up squad in which the Munster, Ind., native was a starter.
“This is by far the most talented team I have played for,” she said. “ During the ‘11 season, those girls were incredibly talented and athletic, but I don’t think we had the depth that we do now.”
Individually, Dorn has the chance to leave her mark on the Illinois record books. Her .351 career hitting percentage is currently sixth most all-time. If she has similar numbers to the past two seasons, she would finish fifth all-time in total blocks, and second only Bangert in block assists.
Whatever happens, Dorn is grateful for another shot to leave her mark on the program and be a part of something special.
“For me with this last year, I don’t want to have any regrets and plan to leave everything out on the court.”
Illinois fans get their first chance of seeing Dorn and the rest of the 11th-ranked Fighting Illini Saturday night at the Alumni Match. The team opens the regular season Aug. 29-30 at the Illini Classic with Long Beach State, North Carolina and Southern Illinois coming to a refurbished Huff Hall.