You know that if we start the next football season 3-0 (and we'd better start the next football season 3-0), then you're going to see a post on here saying "AND THEN IN 2020 THINGS GET EVEN BETTER". During current success, I'm always looking at future success.
So this fall, as volleyball climbed the rankings, I started doing the same. I looked up rankings and recruiting classes and tried to understand where this thing was headed. As I said in the article last week, a lot of the current success comes from Kevin Hambly landing two top-10 national recruits in the 2015 class (Jordyn Poulter and Ali Bastianelli) and then Chris Tamas developing a team around them. Now that they're seniors and performing at an All American level, well, FINAL FOUR.
Then I got this tweet yesterday:
@ALionEye would be great to get a guest author who could tell us about volleyball recruiting. Recent classes, current prospects, how losing two seniors will affect us, what a deep tournament run could do, etc.
-- Corey Koberg (@koberg) December 10, 2018
I get it. Yes, someone who understands the sport much better than I do would be much more qualified to write this article. But hey, that doesn't stop me from writing... every other article I've ever written. So let's give this a shot.
First, a snippet from last week's volleyball article:
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.
That's a good starting point. After Tamas' first season, those players transferred out and he brought in Fleming (a junior transfer) plus a setter (Diana Brown, ranked #45 in PrepVolleyball's rankings) and a defensive specialist (Taylor Kuper, her of that wicked serve and 10 digs in the win over Wisconsin on Saturday). Fleming and Kuper are in the regular rotation, Brown is redshirting.
To evaluate next year's team (and beyond) let's just do the "here's who leaves/here's who returns" thing. The current rotation is basically eight players (tightened up for the tournament - just think of an Illini basketball team that normally rotates 10 guys but only rotates eight in NCAA Tournament). I'm going to dumb it down (because I'm dumb - you down?) and just list the nine players like this (seniors in bold):
Setters - Jordyn Poulter
Blockers - Ali Bastianelli, Ashlyn Fleming
Big Hitters - Jackie Quade, Beth Prince, Megan Cooney
Back Row - Morgan O'Brien, Caroline Welsh, Taylor Kuper
The good news: 7 of the 9 return. The bad news: the best two - both possible Illini Hall Of Fame inductees in the future - graduate. (If the Illini win the national title on Saturday, lock it up. Both Poulter and Bastianelli will end up in the Illini Hall Of Fame.)
So next year is a step back no matter how you view it. You don't lose Deron and Dee and then just maintain the same level of play. You can be good, even great, but you're probably not going to be historic.
But that doesn't mean that volleyball is going to suddenly drop out of the top-25. Or even the top-10. Here's why.
The likely replacement for Chris Tamas at setter is the top-50 recruit who is redshirting: Diana Brown. But there are also rumors that Mica Allison, a freshman at Auburn this season, will be transferring away from Auburn. A possible destination for the former St. Thomas More volleyball player in Champaign? Illinois, of course. Allison, like Poulter, was a top-10 recruit nationally. If it happens, having the #7 recruit in the 2018 class battle the #45 recruit in the 2018 class to become the next Poulter is just about as good a situation as any coach could imagine. And remember, volleyball transfers don't have to sit out. Please note, however - this rumor is only at the "posted on a message board" level so far. If I was real media I couldn't even link it. So please, take that for what it's worth.
(Another note: so much information can be derived from the site linked there. It's people who actually know Illini volleyball discussing Illini volleyball. Bookmark it if you want to learn more.)
Before we get to the recruiting class: another developing situation out there, according to that VolleyTalk Illinois page: International player Bruna Ana Vrankovic, who is currently a student at Illinois. Apparently (according to that message board), the staff applied for a waiver to allow her to be NCAA eligible this season (my guess, something similar to the waiver Giorgi Bezhanishvili recieved since he did play "professionally" in Austria, professionally in quotes because it's more like playing at Oak Hill Academy in Austria). She did not receive the waiver (more on that in a minute), so she was not eligible to play on this year's team. So, she's a student right now, paying her own way.
The other reason she might have have been determined to be NCAA Eligible: she had a doping test failure (again, all of these links come from that one site). Was it daily use of Barry Bonds' cream or was it a trainer gave me something/didn't know it was banned situation? Not sure. That article just notes that she received a two-year penalty (from April 2017 to April 2019).
If she receives an NCAA waiver for 2019? Well then plug her into the lineup, most likely. She's not exactly a replacement for Bastianelli (more outside hitter than middle blocker), but she seems to be an immediate impact type of player.
OK, now we can get to the recruiting class. As mentioned above, the biggest need is MB (middle blocker). After the transfers last spring, Tamas had to scramble to find some replacements this season, and he landed a great one in Ashlyn Fleming from The University of the Pacific. But with Bastianelli graduating plus fellow senior middle blocker Blayke Hranicka (who played in 16 of the 35 matches this year) graduating, there's a big need in the middle. His answer: a class of five players: two true MB's, two players who might be MB's and might be outside hitters, and one defensive specialist. The list:
- Ellie Holzman, OH/MB, New Orleans. Two time (likely three-time once the 2018/19 recipient is named) Gatorade Player of the Year in Louisiana. Was named the national Sophmore of the Year in 2017 (as in, the best sophomore volleyball player in the country) by MaxPreps. Ranked as the #36 player in the country by PrepVolleyball. Was named MVP and led her club team to an AAU national title. The star of the class.
- Kennedy Collins, OH, Zion-Benton. Flipped her commitment from Bradley to Illinois when she got the Illinois offer. Listed as a middle blocker on some sites but when Illinois announced her commitment they listed her as an outside hitter (think Verdis Brown being listed as a defensive tackle on Signing Day - it's when we learn where they might play).
- Kyla Swanson, MB, Wahoo, Nebraska. 6'-4" and in the Signing Day press release Chris Tamas calls her a "true middle blocker", so there you go. Best high school player in Nebraska (remember, Tamas was an assistant there before he got the Illinois job). Given that Holzman and Collins might end up on the outside, perhaps Swanson is the most likely of the freshmen to play the most minutes next season? Ashlyn Fleming is the only returning MB.
Those are the three players the school announced in their Signing Day press release. There are also two other commits (you can go to both of their Twitter pages and see photos of their signing day ceremonies wearing Illinois gear and such, but both signing were after the November 14th FightingIllini.com press release, so maybe there's another press release coming after the season?). Those players are:
- Alyssa Eske, DS/L, Milwaukee. My guess on defensive specialists: volleyball coaches go to AAU Tournaments and simply look for the type of player they like. The rankings lists all appear to be outside hitters, middle blockers, and setters. Defensive specialists - serve and dig, mostly - are more "the coach has an eye for what he wants". Taylor Kuper, in Tamas' first class, was obviously what he wanted, and she had the most digs over this last weekend. Eske is his second DS recruit.
- Rylee Hinton, MB, 6'-2", Champaign. It looks like she signed the day after the Signing Day press release came out. Local player from Champaign. Was one of the first Chris Tamas commits in 2017. Had over two dozen offers (as a sophomore), committed to Illinois. That's about all the info I can find.
The one thing I haven't talked about: the returning underclassmen. Just because they weren't in the rotation this year doesn't mean they won't be next year. I mean, Kendrick Green redshirted and then started 12 games. We already discussed the fact that Tamas would likely have to turn to the recruiting class to replace Bastianelli (given that the only other MB on the roster besides Fleming is another senior, Hranicka). So what does next year's team look like?
Well, the back line rotation remains the same (Caroline Welsh will be a senior, Morgan O'Brien will be a junior, and Taylor Kuper will be a sophomore). And the "hitting" rotation will remain the same (Jackie Quade is the senior superstar of next year's team, joined by senior Beth Prince and junior Megan Cooney). So if you operate on the assumption that you need three middle blockers, four front row hitters, and four back row specialists, and a couple setters for a full season of non-conference and conference games, then it plays out like this:
Setters: Redshirt freshman Diana Brown is the favorite, but there's also rising junior Kylie Bruder (who played some this weekend) and the possible transfer listed above.
Middle Blockers: Fleming will be a senior and has a starting spot locked up. Then add two of the freshmen listed above.
Front Row: Quade, Prince, and Cooney are the big three (just like this year), plus perhaps the international transfer Vrankovic (if eligible) or rising junior Emily Hollowell. The star of the freshman class (Holzman) is right there as well.
Back Row: O'Brien, Welsh, and Kuper are the big three (just like this year), plus perhaps rising juniors Emmaline Walters and Lexie Smith (or maybe the freshman Eske).
My guess? Still a top-10 team. Probably not a Final Four team with the graduation of the two superstars, but still right there. Quade is the key. After her breakout junior season - first team All Big Ten, came up huge in perhaps every huge game (26 kills in the win at Wisconsin, 23 kills in the win at Nebraska, 29 kills in the win at home over Penn State, 22 kills in the match that locked up the one-seed at home against Purdue, 25 kills on Saturday to lead the Illini to the Final Four) - and if she can be the superstar, this will likely be a very good team. A very senior-heavy team, too (Quade, Prince, Fleming, and Welsh will all be seniors), so that usually suggests a solid season.
But hey, why are we talking about next season? We still have a national championship to win THIS season.