by Logan Hanson
The No. 3 Illini Volleyball team advanced to the NCAA Volleyball Championships Sweet Sixteen round for the eighth time in the past decade with their matchup against #15 Marquette on Friday. Although the Sweet Sixteen has been a staple for the program for the past 10 years, advancing past that point has been hard to come by with the most recent time happening in 2011, when the Illini all the way to the National Championship match. A pair of decorated Illini seniors, middle blocker Ali Bastianelli and setter Jordyn Poulter, look to change that narrative with the team this season.
“It means a lot for us seniors. I mean being able to make it to the sweet sixteen again is really good, third time out of four years is really good,” said Bastainelli, “It’s a really good measure of our success we’ve had this year and I really think we can go farther.”
The three seniors, Bastianelli and Poulter along with reserve middle blocker Blayke Hranicka, believe that this season will be different because of the people in and around the program. The team has been able to find success not only because of the hard work that they put in, but the environment that the program has created. The atmosphere is one of a united vision and fun.
“I would summarize it as being a very fun season, not only because we’ve been successful, but because we just have a very solid group of people it’s been an enjoyable atmosphere to be a part of,” said Poulter, “Our coaching staff and our team, everyone’s really bought into the same vision and when you have that it makes coming into practice an enjoyable season every day.”
Lots of smiles with Bastianelli and Poulter on the floor together. The senior duo has led Illinois to 91 victories (and counting) during their careers.
One of the advantages for the Illini, who have won 15 straight matches heading into Friday, has been their ability to win at home. The Illini have gone 13-2 in Huff Hall this season including a pair of wins in the regional round of the playoffs against Eastern Michigan and Louisville. The Illini will try to continue this trend when they play their match in Huff Hall on Friday, an advantage that they don’t understate.
“We practice in here every day. I practiced in here the last four years in my life, so it’s home, it really is,” said Poulter, “It’s a fun place to be, I think this is one of the best volleyball gyms. You feel like you’re in it with the crowd, our student section is kind of right on top of the opponent and that I think gives us a little bit of an edge over people and it’s really awesome.”
The home arena is one thing, but the team knows that the fans really make the difference. With the ability to change the atmosphere, especially during the postseason, the Illini know how important it will be to have the fans show up on Friday.
“I know that the crowd is happy that they [do] not have travel far to see us play. We have been in Huff the whole season and the crowd has only gotten better which is amazing especially at this time,” said Bastianelli, “You want the crowd to be peaking and you want people to be selling out and scrambling to get tickets and I think that’s exactly what’s happening. I’ve seen, even though our game is at 11, so much support that professors are saying and encouraging that their students come to the game and I just think that is so awesome.”
Bastianelli and Poulter have left their mark on the Illini program. Bastianelli currently holds the most blocks by an Illini in a career with 735 and also has the most block assists in program history with 675. Poulter’s career has been equally productive as she ranks third in program history with 5,021 career assists. Although both have had great individual careers, they both see the records as team efforts.
Bastianelli and Poulter in 2015 as freshmen at media day and teaming up for a block against Arizona State.
“I really think it is an accomplishment for the whole team. I mean, [Coach] Chris [Tamas] says it all the time, every individual award is a team award and I wholeheartedly believe that because my blocks or block assists, you know it’s not just me,” said Bastianelli, “It’s the teamwork that we put in every day on the court and in practice and in the gym. And it’s our scouting that the coaches do so there are so many elements that go into all the awards that all of us get and it means a lot to me personally that I’m recognized for that, but it’s really just the team.”
“I’m lucky to have had teammates around me who are as good as they are because, being setter, you are the middle man, and if you don’t have good passers or good attackers, you don’t get assists or you don’t really reap any of the benefits,” said Poulter, “Honestly, it’s all because of the people who have been around me. I’m fortunate to have coaches who take the time to really work with us and make sure we are well-rounded athletes.”
Both Poulter (1) and Bastianelli (5) are both finalists for the Senior CLASS Award.
Although the duo has already left an unforgettable mark on the program, they are not finished yet. Both are looking for one more final step as a cherry on top of their Illini experience: a national championship, which would be the program’s first. Even though that is the ultimate goal, the two hope that the season leaves everyone with a little bit more than just one magical run.
“Well, I’d want to leave the team with a national championship if I could pick one thing,” said Poulter with a laugh, “But, I hope that everyone has enjoyed this season as much as me and it’s something that I hope that the younger girls take with them and help motivate them for the rest of their careers, because it has been a really special year.”
“I would really like to leave the program with something to remember and hopefully that is a national championship,” said Bastianelli, “I mean, being able to be a part of a team like that, it’s a once in a lifetime kind of opportunity. Just taking full advantage of it, I’d really like to have fun the rest of the way. These moments are going to be intense and have a lot pressure behind them, but I’d really like to keep having fun on the court with some of my best friends.”
With the Illini taking the court against Marquette in Huff Hall on Friday for the Sweet Sixteen, they have the potential to advance further than the program has since 2011. It is the hope for the seniors that they will leave the program with something it has not achieved: an NCAA championship.