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updated: 11/2/2012 7:06 PM

Illini's Birks happy she redshirted last year

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So far, the risk has been well worth it.

Former Lyons volleyball star Jocelynn Birks is hedging her bets that she won't get seriously hurt during her career at Illinois. Last year, shortly after arriving on campus as a bright-eyed freshman, she elected to use her one and only redshirt year not because she was injured but because she wanted to better prepare herself for the rigors of Big Ten volleyball.

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And there are quite a few of those.

"It's hard and tiring," Birks said of life in the Big Ten. "Every team in the Big Ten is so talented. It's such a challenge."

In the latest national AVCA coaches poll, five Big Ten teams are ranked in the Top 25, led by third-ranked Penn State, which was No. 1 in the previous week's poll. Nebraska (4), Minnesota (10), Ohio State (15) and Purdue (22) are also ranked. Two other Big Ten teams were ranked or receiving votes last week as well, including Illinois, which is now 10-13 and unranked thanks to 4 straight losses. Three of those losses came to ranked conference foes.

If not for the up-and-coming Birks, a 6-foot-2 outside hitter, the Illini could be in bigger trouble.

Stronger, quicker and savvier after using the last year to work closely with the training staff and study plays from the bench, Birks is now Illinois' top offensive threat. In just her first season of college competition, she leads the team in kills with 372, nearly 100 more than the next player in line.

She's also played in all 94 sets played by the Illinois.

"It's obviously a risk because I could get hurt and not have that redshirt year (to recover)," Birks said. "But I thought coming in last year as a (true) freshman, I really needed an extra year to prepare my body and to learn the game.

"When the coaches asked me if I wanted to do it, I thought it was a good idea. Instead of sitting the bench last year behind seniors (and losing that eligibility), I took that year to get better. I'm hoping that I'll be able to use the rest of my time here and play as much as I can."

In the meantime, Birks can seek counsel from a teammate that has walked a similar path at Illinois.

Middle blocker Erin Johnson, a 6-foot-3 senior out of Crystal Lake South, started as a true freshman at Illinois. She has been a starter ever since and currently leads the Illini in blocks with 110.

"I think one of the hardest things to believe when you're new and young is how you have to show up for every play in the Big Ten. There's never a break," Johnson said. "When you come to college from high school and club, you're used to being able to take plays off. You can't do that anymore and you've got to get used to that.

"That's what the older players try to help the younger players understand. The game in college is more physical, and the girls are so much stronger and faster. You can't make the shots that you used to make in club and you have to work so much harder for every point. That was a big adjustment for me, too. It was hard and it sometimes felt like my freshman year was a whirlwind."

Birks would love to finish her freshman year with a whirlwind rally.

The Illini need to get back on track quickly in order to be relevant during the postseason.

"We talk about working hard for every point in every match," Birks aid. "We just need to keep believing that we can win matches so that we can come back strong for the (NCAA) Tournament."

pbabcock@dailyherald.com

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