Only two weeks separate Illinois fans from the beginning of another Illini Volleyball season. Coming off of a Final Four appearance, the Illini will enter the 2019 season with the No. 6 spot in the AVCA coaches poll.
This year’s roster has two notable absences from the core of last year’s team in seniors Jordyn Poulter and Ali Bastianelli. The Illini also lost senior Blayke Hranicka, as well as defensive specialists Lexie Smith and Emmaline Walters.
Despite losing these pieces, Illinois was able to make some huge additions to the roster for the upcoming season. Outside hitter Bruna Vrankovic is a redshirt-freshman with previous experience on an overseas club. Freshman outside/middle Ellie Holzman was the Gatorade National Volleyball Player of the Year, and sophomore setter Mica Allison was a transfer import from Auburn.
Looking at the Illinois roster, setting is the big question. Replacing a player like Poulter, who now plays professionally and on the U.S. national team, is a difficult feat. The two frontrunners for that role are Diana Brown, a redshirt-freshman with a year of experience in the Illini system and behind Poulter, and Mica Allison, the transfer sophomore. Having been able to see both of them play during the spring season, both are great options which the Illini could rely on dependably, giving Illinois needed depth at the position. Another option for Illinois is to run a 6-2 rotation with both setters seeing the court, as opposed to the 5-1 rotation with a single setter that is more commonly used.
Looking at the outside and middle roles, Illinois returns a solid group around which the rest of these spots can be filled, as Illinois adds five new outsides and middles to the roster. Senior Jacqueline Quade is the biggest piece of the Illini offense, having led the team last year in kills with 560 on a .265 hitting percentage. Also returning are junior Megan Cooney who had 343 kills last season, and redshirt-senior Beth Prince who had 310. The final member of that returning group is senior Ashlyn Fleming, who was an imposing presence on the block after transferring to Illinois last year, with 130 blocks, as well as 210 kills on an incredibly efficient .429 hitting percentage.
Finally, on the defensive side, things will look very similar for Illinois this year. Libero Morgan O’Brien returns as a junior, and is joined by senior Caroline Welsh and sophomore Taylor Kuper. The defense was strong for Illinois last year, and it was anchored by those three players who combined for an even 1,100 digs over the course of the season. These three were also some of the most effective servers on the team, combining for a total of 104 aces. Joining the trio are freshmen Alyssa Eske and Madison Chi.
Needless to say, expectations are high for the Illini after last year’s incredible Final Four run. And while they lost some key instruments to last year’s team, Illinois has done considerable work to fill the holes in the roster once again. In my opinion, the biggest factor that will determine the outcome of the Illini’s season has to be setting, where filling the shoes of a player like Jordyn Poulter is incredibly difficult. Only time will tell though, and with the Illinois season kicking off on Aug. 30 against Tennessee, it may be possible to assess how this year’s team compares to last once they hit the court.
(A player-by-player roster preview from the spring can be found here.)