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updated: 10/14/2011 12:57 AM

Luhrsen, Ward glad they came back home to Illinois

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How deep does the Luhrsen family legacy run at the University of Illinois?

Consider this: Paul Luhrsen, Class of '54 and center for the 1953 Big Ten co-champs, wore No. 50 for the football Illini before a fella named Butkus.

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Paul's son Dane and his wife, Mary Beth, also went to school in Champaign, and their oldest daughter, Katie, played volleyball for the Illini.

Now third-generation Annie is carving her own niche in that tradition.

A junior at Illinois, Annie Luhrsen is setting for the Illini's women's volleyball team. The 18-0 Illini are No. 1 for the first time in program history and off to the best start since the 1985 Illini began 30-0.

"There is a little more fun added to it, that I'm doing it here," said Luhrsen, a 2008 Wheaton Warrenville South graduate. "Grandpa is definitely through and through Orange and Blue."

Grandpa has had good reason to break out the old I-L-L, I-N-I chant, and not just because of Illinois' surprising football team.

The volleyball Illini beat Purdue on Oct. 1 in a match between the country's last two unbeaten teams. Six days later the Illini rallied to beat Penn State in five sets, snapping the four-time defending national champion Nittany Lions' 68-match Big Ten home winning streak.

"It's fun to play in matches like that," Luhrsen said, "and see that we have that extra fight in us. It's exciting to see where we are now, and where we can be."

Luhrsen and All-America outside Colleen Ward, a Naperville North grad, are two of 12 in-state players filling out Illinois' roster. The strong local flavor includes sophomore Courtney Abrahamovich (Naperville Central), redshirt sophomore right-side Jessica Jendryk (Benet) and junior setter Jackie Wolfe (WW South). Next year West Chicago senior Julia Conard will join that group.

Neither Luhrsen nor Ward took the direct path down Interstate 57 to Champaign out of high school, though.

Luhrsen was not heavily recruited, despite being named all-state twice at WW South. She didn't play on Sports Performance's top club team, developing later than most. Luhrsen ended up at Connecticut, where in 2008 she was named Big East Freshman of the Year.

Connecticut proved to not be the right fit for Luhrsen, and in 2009 she transferred to Illinois. She redshirted her first year in Champaign, then sat behind All-America setter Hillary Haen last year.

Luhrsen was reunited with high school teammate Wolfe, one-time U.S. Junior National Team teammate Michelle Barsch and three members of her club team at Illinois.

Two years of patience and practice allowed Luhrsen time to learn Illinois coach Kevin Hambly's system.

"He's taught me a new style of setting that's helped me become more consistent," Luhrsen said. "At Sports Performance they teach a pretty regimented style. Here there's more freedom. It's about getting to the ball and setting, rather than a specific pattern."

Adding Ward to the program was a big coup for the Illini.

The 2007 Daily Herald All-Area captain was ranked seventh nationally by PrepVolleyball.com in the 2008 class, a four-time AAU All-America for Sports Performance.

She went to Florida, where she was named to the all-SEC Freshman team in 2008. Like Luhrsen at Connecticut, something just didn't click for Ward at Florida. In the spring of 2009, she decided to come home to Illinois.

The climate in Champaign isn't the only change Ward noticed.

"It's a different culture here," Ward said. "We have meetings every week and we talk about core values and certain standards that we want to keep. Every two weeks we meet with the coaches and talk about school and social life -- we catch up. It's not just about winning here."

In a conference with two programs -- Penn State and Nebraska -- that have produced seven of the last 12 national champions, Illinois is becoming a destination school for elite volleyball talent.

Since Hambly's arrival Illinois has had two top-10 recruiting classes, and the 2011 team has five players who were ranked in the top 30 in their respective classes. The freshman Class of 2011, ranked third nationally, is the highest rated in program history.

Jocelynn Birks, a freshman from Lyons Twp. considered the top senior from Illinois last year, is redshirting this year.

"I feel like especially the last couple years it's become more a school that people want to come and visit," Ward said. "They love how we do things."

The Luhrsen family is no doubt loving it.

Could a first national championship be the next piece in their Illini legacy?

"They did their best to be unbiased, and they tried not to push me (to Illinois)," Luhrsen said, "but yeah, I can say now they are happy and having a little more fun with it."

jwelge@dailyherald.com

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