Let's Talk Volleyball
I spend my days in this perpetual state of anxiety over unwritten posts on the site. Right now I still have two LLOUI posts to write once I find time, but having a job means I can only squeeze in so many posts when I can. A volleyball post is perhaps two months too late, but football is over now, I have an hour, I've been following a lot closer than I ever have, and I want to write about it.
Let's start with my beliefs about college sports. Recruit well, get those players to their upperclassmen years, put them in a solid system, win. That's really it. It's my default. I'm way too dedicated to it, which is why many of you have responded with "Miami Thomas was better as a freshman than a senior it's not linear, Robert" over the years. But I am a man of comps and defaults, so this is probably how I'm always going to be.
So why is volleyball #3 in the country? Well, solid recruiting, developing those players, getting them to their upperclassman years. And it starts with the two superstar seniors. Jordyn Poulter is Dee Brown, Ali Bastianelli is Deron Williams. That's pretty much how I look at this.
In fact, coming out of high school, they were much higher-regarded than Dee and Deron. PrepVolleyball.com does a list of "Senior Aces" and Ali Bastianelli was the #10 player nationally in the 2015 class and Jordyn Poulter was #3 overall. OK, Deron and Dee is under-shooting it (Dee was #19 in the RSCI and Deron was #48). This was the volleyball team landing their Cliff Alexander and Jalen Brunson.
This whole thing - being ranked #3 in 2018 - starts with Kevin Hambly recruiting Poulter and Bastianelli back in 2015. Hambly then bolted for Stanford in 2017 (they're #1 right now while Illinois is #3 - think a Final Four matchup would be fun?), and Josh Whitman hired Nebraska assistant Chris Tamas to take over the Illinois program. His results so far have been off the charts.
But you can't just build a volleyball team around one setter and one middle blocker. You need to have some ladies who can really swing. "Hit a heavy ball" is the vernacular, I believe. So for that let's go to... my yearly Ten Names You'll Learn column on New Years Day! In the TNYL column for 2017, I told you to remember the name Jackie Quade. In the TNYL column for 2018, I told you to learn the name Megan Cooney. Who leads the team in kills this season? 1. Jackie Quade, 2. Megan Cooney. Those two (Quade a junior, Cooney a sophomore) combine with Beth Prince (another junior) to, uh, "hit a heavy ball" after Poulter provides the ball in the right spot every time because she's amazing.
Here's where I need to talk about transfers, because this is Illini Athletics under Josh Whitman and we can't have a first season for a new coach without a bunch of players transferring after the season. After Tamas' first season, four players transferred: Marijke Van Dyke transferred to Louisville and three players - middle blocker Tyanna Omazic (a huge part of the 2017 team's Sweet 16 success), defensive specialist Annika Gereau, and outside hitter Kylie Deberg - all transferred to Missouri. This left the squad dangerously thin at middle blocker (it's hard to emphasize how much they would have relied on Tyanna Omazic had she not transferred), but Tamas found a solid replacement. In volleyball, there's no sit-out year if you transfer, and Tamas got a transfer from the University of the Pacific, Ashyln Fleming. How did she do as Omazic's replacement? Oh, you know, first team All Big Ten. The Illini put four players on the first team total - Poulter, Bastianelli, Quade, and Fleming.
But you also need a back row. What does the back row do? Dig and serve, for the most part. They rotate in, serve, dig, and set a little bit if the pass doesn't get to Poulter because of a tough dig, and then rotate out because they're not front row players. (I'm probably butchering a lot of this but leave me alone I'm having fun talking about a sport I don't fully understand.)
The back row has mostly been a rotation of three players: junior Caroline Welsh, sophomore Morgan O'Brien, and freshman Taylor Kuper. O'Brien is the libero which means she gets to do some "I only play defense" rotation stuff that the other players can't do and she gets to wear a different colored jersey but I don't know the specific rules so let's move on. I watched some of the win at Nebraska, and O'Brien was just fantastic. I have no idea how you position yourself to not only get in front of a blistering fastball from the opposing outside hitter, but also pop it up in the air softly right in the direction of the setter. She's from Libertyville, so my only guess is that Matt Heldman is somehow her guardian angel, preventing he from serious injury when throwing her body in front of fastballs.
I should also mention the freshman (Kuper) who, when I've watched, seems to have the best serve on the team. She leads the team in aces (but also service errors), so think of her as Adam Dunn. It's a strikeout or it's a three run homer. OK, that's unfair. She's way better than Adam Dunn.
Put it all together and what do you have? Two senior superstars (and I mean superstars), a bunch of juniors (Fleming, Quade, Welsh, Prince) performing their roles to perfection, and then some underclassmen for the future (Cooney, O'Brien, SuperKuper) already contributing. Honestly, it's a model for Brad Underwood in two years. The team should be led by two superstars (Trent a senior and Ayo a junior), a bunch of upperclassmen contributing heavy minutes (Da'Monte, Giorgi, Alan Griffin), and then he needs to find a Fleming-like transfer and three underclassmen future stars like Cooney, O'Brien, and Kuper.
How far can this volleyball team go? Well, with the #3 overall seed - that's not a 3-seed like the NCAA Tournament because volleyball doesn't seed 64 teams, so it's basically one of the four #1 seeds (#3 overall) - they'll have to beat the #6 overall seed (2-seed line) to get to the Final Four. That possible Elite Eight matchup is a tough one: #6 Wisconsin, who already beat Illinois in Champaign earlier this season (the Illini got revenge by beating the Badgers in Madison).
So we (we!) should roll over Eastern Michigan tonight and then have no problem with old friend Marijke Van Dyke and Louisville tomorrow. That sets up a Sweet 16 matchup with (likely) #14 Marquette (again played in Champaign since Illinois is one of the top four seeds), followed by (likely) #6 Wisconsin (unless #11 USC wants to do us a solid and knock off Wisconsin in the Sweet 16).
Projecting further, it would then be a possible matchup with #2 Minnesota in the Final Four (did I mention that the Final Four is in Minneapolis this year?). Somehow beat #2 Minnesota on their home turf? Then it's a possible matchup with the coach who recruited them and then left (Kevin Hambly and Stanford) in the national title game.
Wouldn't that be fun?