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Behind Enemy Lines: Illinois Volleyball

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#8 Washington volleyball hosts rounds 1 & 2 of the 2017 NCAA tournament this weekend. I spoke to some Illinois fans for a closer look at one of UW's potential opponents.

Ali Bastianelli (5) and Jocelynn Birks (7) attempt to block a Penn State spike in Friday's game at Huff Hall. Illinois lost 1-3.
Illinois' Ali Bastianelli (5, middle) has shown herself to be one of the NCAA's best middle blockers.
The Daily Illini

The Husky volleyball team received the #8 overall seed for the NCAA tournament and will be hosting the first two rounds at Alaska Airlines Arena. UW plays LIU-Brooklyn, out of the Northeast Conference, on Friday night, then the winner of that matchup plays the winner of Illinois-Hawaii on Saturday.

I had a chance to speak with a few leaders of the Illinois Spike Squad, the volleyball student section for the Fighting Illini, about their team that will be visiting Seattle. We talked about a recent coaching change, players to watch, and more.

UW Dawg Pound: Kevin Hambly surprisingly (from the outside, at least) left the Illinois head coach job to replace the retiring John Dunning at UW's Pac-12 rival, Stanford. How has the transition to Coach Chris Tamas been? Did any players transfer out with their coach leaving unexpectedly?

Illinois Spike Squad: Coach Hambly’s departure was a surprise for us too. Obviously he had experienced a lot of success here as head coach: 5 B1G Top 4 finishes, 5 Sweet Sixteen appearances, Illinois Volleyball’s first-ever trip to the National Championship match, 12 AVCA All-Americans, the list goes on. We’ll go ahead and take credit for getting him to a point where he can take such a high-profile position at Stanford and we wish he and the Cardinal all the best… except for when we play them.

We had two freshmen on our squad last year that did not return this year -- one who transferred to an ACC team and another who is still here in Champaign but is no longer on the roster. It's unclear if these moves had to do with Hambly’s departure/Tamas’ entrance.

The transition to Coach Tamas was graceful and exciting from everyone’s perspective, especially for us as Spike Squad leaders. Coach has brought a lot to the table in working with us and our students have experienced some really unique opportunities this season as a result -- not to mention our entire coaching staff working tirelessly with us too! Shoutout to coaches Jason Mansfield, Rashinda Reed, Jen Tamas, and Director of Operations Andy Wenstrand for making this a great year. There is a great deal of youth, vibrancy, and energy in this team. In just about any audio interview with Coach Tamas you’ll hear him discuss the high level of interaction we’ve seen between Spike Squad leadership and the coaching staff this season. We’ll be looking to build on this more during the offseason and come back even stronger for 2018.

UWDP: Any scouting report on Illinois has to start with (junior middle blocker) Ali Bastianelli. Besides just being tall and athletic, what makes her so dominant?

(Bastianelli ranks fourth in the country with 1.59 blocks/set and is in the top 25 in hitting percentage, at a .388 clip)

SS: Ali is never satisfied. Even during matches in which Ali is firing on all cylinders, she can’t have enough. Her frame of mind is particularly serious and dead-set on improving each and every match. It takes a really special kind of player to achieve at such a high level so consistently, and it seems like it is this mindset (in conjunction with her athleticism and probably a bit of actual magic) that allows her to have so much control over the net all around our conference. We really like to brag about our Kid Block. She was just named to the All-B1G Team this week!

UWDP: Besides Bastianelli in the middle, who else is a big part of the Illini gameplan?

SS: You want us to pick???

Redshirt-sophomore outside hitter Beth Prince has had a breakout season that has complimented the talents of our other primary outside, 2016’s Illini Female Newcomer of the Year Jacqueline Quade. In an interview with the Daily Illini in September, Beth noted that she felt she played her best ball in close sets, and that’s exactly what we see from her. Beth shines in clutch moments. Junior setter Jordyn Poulter (2017 All-B1G) has been key as well, notching over 1200 assists, 275 digs, and 107 blocks this season. That makes her the only B1G player to rank in the National Top 15 in both assists and blocks from the setter position! Her 2nd-touch dump (where the setter sneaks the ball over the net immediately instead of setting it for another player to attack) is lethal - she had 9 in our win against Minnesota!

UWDP: Two of Illinois' best matches this year came against national #7 Minnesota: a tight 5-set loss in Minneapolis and a statement upset in Champaign. After a bunch of close calls in losses, did that feel like a breakthrough?

SS: Going down in 5 to Minnesota in Minneapolis was tough because for much of the match our girls hung around pretty close to the then-fifth-ranked team in the country. The beginning of the first set was tremendous and really set the stage for our “We could win this!” thoughts. We were in a tough stretch of our schedule at that particular time, playing three Top-10 teams in a row. Clinching that fifth set would’ve been a game-changer for our confidence and record in the middle portion of our conference season.

Our match at Minnesota wasn’t the first time we let a close one get away, and we knew that even though Minnesota ended up taking the W they’d be coming to Huff Hall with a vengeance. Fortunately our girls played some of their best ball, hitting .333% overall against one of the best teams in the country on the way to a HUGE 27-29, 25-19, 25-18, 25-20 victory. The win resonated throughout our student population and larger general fan base. The Illini had finally gotten the upset win we knew they were capable of all season.

UWDP: Have there been any injuries that have affected part of your season, whether they're still depleting the team at this point or not?

SS: Our lone senior and starting libero Brandi Donnelly went down with a meniscus injury in early October during a match vs. Purdue at Huff Hall in Champaign. Thankfully the injury only required minor surgery and she was back on the court for us just under a month later. During Brandi’s absence we got a glimpse of what next season will look like for the Illini following her graduation, which was a nice surprise but certainly not one we as fans were ready to think about just yet. Brandi took home Co-B1G Defensive Player of the Week honors the week of her return, averaging 5.1 digs/set during that week’s 2-0 schedule. Her celebration at Senior Night (or as we called it, Brandi Night) was bittersweet. We’ve been overjoyed to have her run our backcourt for the last four years.

A few other injuries have prevented some of our newcomers from seeing playing time as well. Spike Squad members were excited to see outside hitter Kylie Kuyava-Deberg potentially get more playing time as we moved through the non-conference schedule earlier this fall but a minor injury combined with an increasingly difficult B1G schedule, shut off her playing time until recently. Our new setter Kylie Bruder sustained an injury during summer camp that benched her for the whole season, so unfortunately we’ve yet to see her take the court in any capacity as an Illini. We’re excited for the growth of both of these players over the next few years.

UWDP: Is there anything else specific I haven't brought up that you want to mention about your team?

SS: We have 9 freshmen! We’ve gotten to see all but one of them on the court this season, and several of them have been featured heavily in our typical rotations. Opposite hitter Megan Cooney has earned at least one B1G Freshman of the Week honor this season and was just named to the 2017 B1G All-Freshman Team, defensive specialist Morgan O’Brien was instrumental to our success in our stretch without Brandi and has continued to play at a high level, and middle blocker Tyanna Omazic has grown significantly in her confidence and playmaking ability since August. The Illini returned 8 and brought in 9 this season, and we’ll only lose 1 to graduation. Just about anyone around here would assure you that the future is very, very bright.

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Thank you to the Illinois Spike Squad for participating in this Q&A. You can find me on Twitter @DawgoneCrazy, and the Spike Squad is @SpikeSquad.

Illinois plays Hawaii Friday evening at 5 PM Pacific, with Long Island-Washington to follow at around 7:30 PM. The winners play Saturday at 7 PM PST.