The new kids on the block showed up at Huff Hall with a reputation, but nobody seemed to mind. Four freshman that formed the third-ranked recruiting class in the country provided more size and strength as the Illinois volleyball team will attempt to take another step forward. The Illini, ranked No. 8 nationally in the preseason coaches poll, want to improve upon three consecutive NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearances.
CHAMPAIGN -- The new kids on the block showed up at Huff Hall with a reputation, but nobody seemed to mind.
Four freshman that formed the third-ranked recruiting class in the country provided more size and strength as the Illinois volleyball team will attempt to take another step forward. The Illini, ranked No. 8 nationally in the preseason coaches poll, want to improve upon three consecutive NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearances.
"This is the most talented team we've had, by far,'' said third-year coach Kevin Hambly. "Not so much with experience, but definitely the most talented, the most physical.
"The older kids are as tired of finishing in the Sweet 16 as anybody. They said, 'This is great. Bring in as many great players as you can.' I can see us doing more with rotating players, using more of our talent throughout the year.''
The Illini must no longer rely on on experience and finesse with a smaller lineup. They went big with the incoming freshman, landing four players 6-foot or taller, led by freshman Liz McMahon. The nation's No. 3 ranked prep player in her class, McMahon is a 6-6 right-side hitter who is expected to start in the season opener Friday at BYU.
McMahon first became an Illini recruiting target as a high school sophomore near Cincinnati. By her junior year, she committed after making five recruiting visits to Illinois, three to Penn State and two apiece to Nebraska and Florida. Stanford was her other finalist.
She eventually chose the Illini over Penn State, the four-time defending national champ.
"Here, we have a chance to beat the Penn States of the nation,'' she said. "This is a program really starting to get onto something. I want to be part of that.''
Freshmen Jocelynn Birks (26th ranked), Morganne Criswell of Decatur Lutheran (33) and Ali Stark (53) were also listed among the nation's top recruits nationally. Middle blocker Anna Dorn (6) was a top recruit last year before missing the season with a knee injury.
With senior All-Americans Michelle Bartsch and Colleen Ward on the left side of the net, Hambly created room on the right side for McMahon. Birks will likely redshirt, but Hambly planned to use the other freshmen.
"Liz is what we wanted in the future,'' Hambly said. "We weren't sure this year she would start.''
Penn State earned the role of favorite in the Big Ten coaches poll. The Illini and newcomer Nebraska tied for second in the preseason poll. Penn State is also the favorite to repeat as the national champ, according to the coaches poll. Nebraska was ranked fifth.
The Illini play every Big Ten school twice with the exception of Nebraska and Iowa. Nebraska and junior outside hitter Hannah Werth, a Chatham Glenwood High School graduate who was the Big 12 defensive player of the year last season, don't make the trip to Illinois. The only match between the two teams will be played in Nebraska.
NOTE: Senior setter Hannah Deterding earned a varsity letter last season after helping Illinois Central College to the NJCAA Division II national championship as a sophomore. ... Junior outside hitter Tayler Onion, a graduate of Rushville-Industry High School, received academic all-Big Ten last season.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.