It’s been a few days, but let’s reflect on the Illini’s season.
The 2019 Illinois Volleyball campaign came to a close Friday night, as the Illini fell to Utah in five sets (23-25, 26-24, 27-25, 23-25, 10-15). In a hard-fought match, the Illinois came within two points of advancing to the Round of 32 in the fourth set, before being bested by a strong Utah team that would later advance to the Sweet Sixteen following an impressive sweep of BYU.
Coming off of last year’s Final Four season, expectations were high for an Illinois program that had lost two of its core components: All-Americans Jordyn Poulter and Ali Bastianelli. The Illini opened the season sixth in the AVCA coaches poll, climbed to a No. 5 spot after the first week, before ultimately falling out of the poll in the week leading up to the NCAA Tournament.
The season had ups and downs, and Illinois did end up making it to the NCAA Tournament, one of the “Last Four In”, with a 16-13 record, including an 11-9 mark in conference play and a 4-8 mark against Top 25 programs.
The Good: Youth
Freshmen played key roles on this year’s Illini team. Redshirt freshman Diana Brown took over for Poulter at setter, and excelled. A member of the Big Ten All-Freshman team, Brown played in every set for Illinois this year, picking up 1,295 assists on the season, just over ten a set. These numbers line up quite well with Poulter’s numbers from her freshman campaign. Brown will be a huge part of Illinois’s success for years to come.
Kennedy Collins also made a huge impact as a freshman as a middle, playing in nearly every match this year. With 129 kills and 80 blocks on the season, Collins stepped into the role vacated by Ali Bastianelli, and will also be a key piece for the Illini in coming years.
Other freshmen are sure to make an impact in the coming years as well, as outside/middle Ellie Holzman, the 2018-19 Gatorade National Player of the Year, will be returning from injury, and countless others saw the court throughout parts of the 2019 campaign.
The Bad: The Big Ten
The Big Ten is a ruthless volleyball conference, and the best in the nation. Illinois played against some tough competition, and took some lumps to show for it. In such a great conference as the Big Ten, a brutal stretch is inevitable, and the Illini experienced that in mid-October, playing No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 7 Minnesota, and No. 8 Penn State back-to-back-to-back. Illinois lost all three of those matches, including a reverse sweep by the Nittany Lions.
Playing in the Big Ten was a saving grace in a way for the Illini though, as despite a 16-13 record Illinois was deemed worthy of an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. The Big Ten does prepare teams well for the postseason, and five Big Ten teams are in the Sweet Sixteen.
The Ugly: Losing Seniors
Illinois loses four seniors following this season, all of whom leave behind big gaps to fill. All-American Jacqueline Quade has carried the brunt of the Illini offense all four of her years, leading the team in kills for each of the last three seasons, and Beth Prince was right behind her for the last few years. Ashlyn Fleming, despite only coming in last year as a junior transfer, immediately made her presence known as an imposing figure on the block (122 as a senior), and a ridiculously efficient attacker, with 290 kills at a .352 clip. Finally, defensive specialist Caroline Welsh has been a presence in the back row since her freshman year, rotating in all four years and picking up 210 digs in her senior campaign.
Seniors are always hard to replace, and filling the spots left behind last year was hard enough. Now four more spots open up and are waiting to be filled. With a fairly young roster however this year, there’s a number of players who all saw limited time on the floor who can step up into those roles.
With an entire offseason to prepare, who knows what the future holds. It’s been an exciting three years for the Illini under Chris Tamas, making the tournament each season. Hopefully, it holds true for a fourth straight season next year.