Could 2014 be the year for Illini volleyball?

One year after sending a record seven teams to the NCAA Sweet 16, the Big Ten again finds itself with high expectations. Paced by top-ranked and defending national champion Penn State, the conference put six teams in the top 12 and seven in the top 16 in the AVCA Preseason Coaches poll. Not surprisingly, the expectations are high for at least half the teams in arguably the top volleyball conference in the land.

Looking a bit closer however, there are many reasons why this could again be the year of the Illini. Nine of the 14 All-Big Ten players from 2013 were seniors and most of the top teams across the conference were senior laden. Penn State takes the biggest hit to graduation with the loss of the trio of Deja McClendon, Katie Stay and Ariel Scott, although the Nittany Lions return one of the all-time great setters and servers in Micha Hancock. Wisconsin, Purdue, Minnesota, Michigan and Michigan State also took a big hit to graduation.

Illinois, meanwhile, loses its all-time digs leader in Jennifer Beltran, but returns all of its hitters and setter Alexis Viliunas. While the other contenders have top recruiting classes, they can’t match Illinois in terms of experience. This is a similar situation that the Illini were in in 2011, with a head-and-shoulders advantage in quality experience compared to the rest of the conference.

The two years since reaching the 2011 national championship match have been up-and-down for the Illini. Rebuilding in such a tough league means weaknesses are exposed. Illinois went 14-16 and missed the tournament in 2012 and was headed for that same fate in 2013 before a late surge gave the 16-14 Illini not only an NCAA bid, but also a national seed. The Illini entered November with just a 9-12 mark, but won six straight and seven of its final nine matches.

“I knew coming into this year, we’d be this older team that has a shot,” Hambly said at Media Day on Tuesday.

That’s why despite a shaky year in ’12 that in addition to the rough and tumble Big Ten slate, he loaded the non-conference schedule with seven ranked teams, including No. 2 Texas and No. 6 Washington at the Illini Classic, in 2013.

“I made that schedule because I wanted our players to see that level and figure out how to win against that level,” Hambly added. “At the end of the last year, we learned how to win as a group. I felt like we accomplished exactly what we wanted to in the second half of the Big Ten in doing just that. It didn’t end how we wanted it to (with a straight sets loss to Purdue at the State Farm Center in the Regional Semifinal), but we figured some things out, the biggest is the understanding of what it takes and how hard you have to work.”

That has been a trademark of Hambly’s top teams, which is why when for the third straight year, his top assistant left for a head coaching job, he opted for coaches, who despite a combined three years of collegiate coaching experience, came with Illinois connections, understanding what it takes to win in Champaign. He brought in All-America setter Hillary Haen, the lynchpin to Illinois’ first highly regarded recruiting class of the 21st century, and Scott Leserman, an assistant at Northwestern who served as a volunteer coach at Illinois in 2010.

“I really felt I wanted a staff who knew what it meant to be a part of Illinois and help imprint that work ethic mentality,” Hambly said. “What they bring culturally is more invaluable compared to their experience. It means that I am going to have to teach a little bit more. That’s more stress on me, but I’d like to keep these guys around a little longer.”

Much like that ’11 team, Illinois has a potent right side attack. In addition to senior Liz McMahon, an absolute beast of a player who had 17 kills and hit .406 in the NCAA 2nd round win over Marquette, the lefty Ali Stark has made tremendous strides.

“Ali Stark is turning into a weapon,” Hambly said. “We’re going to be really fast with her. She is really hard to stop.”

That’s significant for two reasons. First the Illini can spread the net, forcing defenders to cover both pins, and it enables Illinois to play a 6-2, which keeps the setter in the back row and three hitters at the net at all times.

“For sure 100 percent,” Hambly said about whether Illinois would utilize the multi-setter offense, which, in addition to Viliunas, includes sophomores McKenna Kelsay and Allison Palmer.

Of course any top team needs booming hitters. No player was more crucial to Illinois’ successful 2013 stretch run than Jocelyn Birks. The redshirt junior could be the Colleen Ward of 2014, capable of terminating as well as anyone in the country, even from the back row. The Lyons Township native has all the tools to make her an All-American. The six-rotation player became just the third Illini with a 500-kill season in 2013, and hit .274 with 22 kills at Penn State. Veteran outside hitter Morganne Criswell has had some break out games as well.

“We’re going to look very different,” Hambly said. “We’re much faster and have some weapons.”

Defensively, Illinois will be one of the best blocking teams in the country, with Hambly comparing the prowess of fifth-year senior Anna Dorn to the school’s all-time leading blocker Johannah Bangert, the team’s current director of operations. Despite that, Dorn came into the spring unsure of a starting spot, being pushed by Maddie Mayers and Katie Stadick as well as Kathryn Polkhoff. What Hambly is hoping is that the position can also become more of an offensive threat.

“(Our big hitters) can be easier to stop if we can’t get the middle going offensively,” Hambly said. “All four of them are as good as I’ve had in terms of blocking, but we need a couple of them to emerge offensively. Statick is probably the closest right now.”

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,” Dorn 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, meaning that at any time we have two or three people on the bench in any one position that can go in and fill a spot for someone else. To be able to have the option when someone is not having the best night gives us a lot of diversity and experience going forward.”

As usual, the schedule is filled with quality teams. Illinois will find out just where it stands early in the year at the Big Ten/Pac-12 challenge, facing off against No. 3 Stanford in Palo Alto. Although there will certainly be challenges, you can see it in Hambly’s eyes that once again he is confident in matching his club against any team in the nation.

“As you can tell, I’m pretty excited about what we have, which starts with our experience,” he said. “It’s going to be different.”

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