A note from Lee: Jordyn Poulter was named to the 12-player USA Olympic women’s volleyball team on Monday. In November 2018 I made a trip to Illinois to see her play and spend time with her and her teammates to write this piece. She was most impressive both on and off the court. For that matter, she was an even better player in person than I had seen on TV. It was no coincidence that Illinois made it to the NCAA national semifinals that season, and I’m not surprised she’s going to the Olympics.

What you see is really what you get with Illinois senior setter Jordyn Poulter.

“Jordyn’s probably the most competitive person I know,” Illinois sophomore teammate Megan Cooney says, “and she transfers that to all of us and really gets the fire going in all of us.”

Added senior Ali Bastianelli, “She wants to win and she doesn’t care what it takes. In the summer we have a lot of competitions. We lift and we do a lot of conditioning and she will throw herself if it means winning by a small margin. She’s competitive.”

So it’s no surprise that on a volleyball court Poulter is all business. 

“I think that’s the challenge with me, trying to channel my aggressive and competitive nature that can be perceived by somebody else as,” and she paused and smiled, “I just want the best out of you. I want you to be the best and I want us to be the best.”

“She’s a great player, but she’s an even better person, a great leader and intent on getting better every time she gets on the court,” second-year Illinois coach Chris Tamas said. “And that’s really rare to find. Not that players don’t work hard, but the intent that she has every day is pretty impressive.”

So it might surprise you that such a serious player has such a hearty laugh.

Or that she’s not all volleyball all the time. 

“I think some people might be interested to know that I play the piano and guitar,” Poulter said. “Self taught. 

“A lot of country. Country sounds good on a guitar. The creative medium that I find through music is good.”

She also finds it through video and film. One day, long after what she hopes will be a long pro and national-team volleyball career, the muscular 6-foot-2 senior wants to make movies.

In the meantime, there’s the matter of the Fighting Illini, the No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, playing host to Eastern Michigan at 7 p.m. Central on Friday.

Poulter and her teammates are 28-3 overall and were second only to Minnesota in the Big Ten, finishing the league schedule 17-3. For that matter, Illinois has won 13 in a row and Wednesday Poulter was named co-setter of the year in the B1G with Minnesota’s Samantha Seliger-Swenson, who was named player of the year.

Jordyn Poulter
Illinois setter Jordyn Poulter/Craig Pessman photo

Which is a far cry from where Poulter was nearly two years ago, thinking about transferring after her sophomore season when Illinois coach Kevin Hambly left to take the Stanford job.

Poulter grew up in Aurora, Colorado, but was an Illinois kid at heart. Her family is from the Chicago suburb of Naperville. She was born in Illinois and spent summers there.

“So it wasn’t just a random girl from Colorado coming out to the Midwest,” Poulter said with a laugh.

And she wanted to play in the Big Ten.

“Of course. Who doesn’t? Whoever wanted to play in the Pac-12 over the Big Ten,” and she laughed again, shaking her head. 

But when Hambly left, it was a blow.

“Kevin was a big part of me coming here, so it was a weird time when he left,” Poulter admitted.” But right now having had time, I think he’s where he needs to be and I’m where I’m supposed to be and that’s great for both of us.”

Tamas, an assistant at Nebraska, got the Illinois job. Re-recruiting Poulter, if you will, was priority one.

“She was the first meeting that I had,” Tamas recalled. 

He, too, heard the rumors that she might leave.

“I sat her down and said, ‘Look, I’ve watched you play. And one of the reasons I took this job was because of you. Because you’re here. I have the opportunity to work with you.’”

And then Tamas, a former pro setter with quite a resume and a strong personality himself, told Poulter simply, “You remind me a lot of me when I was your age. Your intensity, how you approach the game, so I might be the best coach for you at this time in your career.”

What’s more, the year before Tamas, who played at Pacific, arrived, Illinois failed get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

He told Poulter, “I can’t promise championships or anything like that, but I can teach how to win in this environment. The way the team was set up, it reminded me of my team in college and it was the same thing. There were some lessons I wish I had learned. And some freedom that I was given back in college that I thought I could bring to the table for her.”

Poulter, as straightforward as they come and who says she gets that from her father, appreciated what Tamas said, especially when he added, “I think we’re a lot alike in a lot of areas and I think it will be a good fit for the both of us.”

She believed him.

Tamas laughed.

“She believed me.”

Poulter admits now it wasn’t that hard of a sell.

“You notice assistant coaches at some other schools. Chris was at Nebraska and he was always squatting down by the scorer’s table, as every Nebraska assistant does, and he was really involved in Nebraska’s success. It’s hard not to respect a coach coming from a program like Nebraska,” Poulter said.

“We met one-on-one the first week he was here. We kind of let it all out and he told me that just having coached against us, he laid out every single weakness we had. Everything he said I was in complete agreement with. 

“He told me schematic things he would like to change and improve and he told me tendencies about myself that he’d like to change in order for me to be the best setter I can be. You can’t not appreciate somebody who’s that straightforward with you. Someone who can, number one, recognize those things, and number two, lay out solutions.”

Their partnership paid off right away. Last year, Illinois finished 12-8 in the B1G and capped a 23-11 season with two victories in the NCAA Tournament, first beating Hawai’i and then stunning eighth-seeded Washington on its home floor. Then Illinois lost in four to Michigan State in the round of 16.

“The loss to Michigan State was still a good volleyball match for us,” Poulter said. “We couldn’t leave last year disappointed because we did everything we could do.”

It also left Illinois with a different set of expectations:

“I think we acknowledge that the expectations and standard are higher,” Poulter said.

“We have two freshmen, Diana (Brown) is redshirting and Taylor (Kuper), our DS, has had to step in and be ready to go. She’s doing great. But there’s no excuse for the rest of us. I’m serious and maybe a part of it is because it’s Ali’s and my senior year.”

Ali Bastianelli will leave Illinois as its all-time leading blocker. She averages 1.35 blocks per set, is third on the team with 269 kills, averaging 2.34 per set.

Sometimes she gets kills off an improbable set.

“There are plays like that that happen every game,” Bastianelli said. “The ones that impress me the most are her defensive plays in the back row, just because I know what to expect from her in the front row. 

“I know her sets are going to be great every time and if they’re not it’s not a big deal because they’re so good. And blocking, I know she’s going to go up there and be the most physical blocker at the net she can be. But there are some plays where the ball will be hit off the right side of the block and she’ll just do that one-armed scoop and it will be like four feet outside of her body and she’ll somehow get it up. It’s that kind of dedication that just drives all of us around her to be better. If she can give that effort on that one ball, than we can give that effort, too.”

Illinois’ leading attacker is junior outside Jacqueline Quade.

“She’ll be diving on the ground and it’s a perfect set,” Quade said with a smile. “Or she’ll be 20 feet back and it’s right where I need it. That’s a pretty big game changer. Playing against these top-level teams it’s pretty hard to score, because they’re so good defensively. So having that ball right where you need it is essential.”

Added sophomore Megan Cooney, “She is great at keeping any out-of-system ball in system. Anything that our passers pass anywhere on the court she can put up for any hitter. That’s just really great for us and the blockers aren’t expecting it. We’re expecting it now, we’re used to it, and it really helps us get one on one against the blockers.”

That’s not lost on the competition.

“Jordyn is a special human being and a fantastic setter,” said Indiana coach Steve Aird, who also went against her while he was at Maryland. “She is so physical and her net play is excellent. Location, decision making and feel is off the charts as well. Just the complete package.”

Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield, whose experience with setters includes having Lauren Carlini, had strong praise for Poulter.

“She’s very physical. She’s got a complete game. She serves well, plays good defense, and I’m not so sure she’s not the best blocker in the Big Ten regardless of position,” Sheffield said.

Tamas wouldn’t argue.

“She reads it well, she’s dynamic, gets in good positions, and she’ll force players to do something they don’t want to do and/or just get a stuff out of it.”

There was a fine line between Seliger-Swenson, one of the many fabulous Big Ten setters, and Poulter. 

Seliger-Swenson averaged 11.76 assists this season, Poulter 11.77. Seliger-Swenson, who averages .40 blocks per set, was the Big Ten player of the week seven times this season as the Gophers went 19-1 in the B1G. Poulter, averaging .84 blocks per set, was the setter of the week five times as Illinois went 17-3.

And Tamas, who played professionally in six different countries, knows them both. He helped recruit Seliger-Swenson while he was an assistant at Minnesota from 2010-12 before going to Nebraska.

Tamas has been a coach in the USA Volleyball gym for six years. His wife, Jen, a volunteer assistant at Illinois, has 10 years with the national team. So when they called USA coach Karch Kiraly, he listened.

“I told Karch he needs to take a serious look at Jordyn,” Chris Tamas said. I said to him, ‘She’s gonna be really good. I’m not saying that just because she’s my player, but because we know what USA Volleyball is like and she’s going to fit really well in your culture.’ ”

To her credit, Poulter has quite a bit of national-team experience.

“It’s always great to represent your country and play with a bunch of girls from around the country you’ve never met,” she said.

And just imagine her first USA team, at 14, when her teammates were future Penn State player Simone Lee, future Nebraska Huskers Kenzie Maloney and Mikaela Foecke, and Hayley Hodson, who was the national freshman of the year for Stanford before leaving the sport because of medical issues. 

And remember that idea of making movies? Hodson and Poulter have stayed close friends and hope to collaborate in film one day.

‘That was fun and that core group of us stayed together.” Poulter said. “Hayley and I had the opportunity to play for Karch going into our senior year of high school. I’ve been really blessed with the opportunities I’ve had.”

On one of those teams, she was coached by Robyn Ah Mow-Santos, the Olympic setter now head coach at Hawai’i.

“So playing them in the tournament last year was really fun,” Poulter said.

Fast forward to this past summer when Poulter was in the national-team gym from mid-May into July, in with setters like Carli Lloyd, Micha Hancock, Kelly Hunter, Carlini. What’s more, while preparing for the Pan Am Games, she roomed with Penn State’s Haleigh Washington, Chiaka Ogbogu of Texas and Utah’s Adora Anae.

The plan now is to graduate next month and get right into professional volleyball with an eye on competing for a spot on the 2020 Olympic team. 

None of that surprises Bastianelli, who remembers seeing Poulter on the club circuit.

“Instantly I knew she was the top setter,” Bastianelli said. “She’s got the physicality that not many setters have. She’s just so aggressive and you can see that from watching her play. You can see that she wants to have control of the game and I think that’s inspiring and it’s awesome that she’s like that.”

Sometime Friday against Eastern Michigan it’s likely that they’ll go up together, Bastianelli and Poulter, and score a big block. Bastianelli knows what to expect.

“There have been a few times when we’ve gone up for a block and gotten the stuff and she’ll push me in a motivating way,” Bastianelli said, laughing. “Sometimes it surprises me.

“She’s very physical when something positive happens. She’ll be the first one to grab you and yell ‘Great job!’ It’s fun, because she acknowledges every little thing that happens on the court. It’s not that she reacts to everything, but she acknowledges. It could be a perfect pass, a hard-driven dig, and we might not even win the point, but she’ll still acknowledge — she’s quick to recognize that kind of stuff.”

Just one of the many reasons the Colorado kid did well in Illinois.

“I think every emotion can be found in new experiences,” Poulter said. “In college you get accustomed to it pretty quickly, you get a routine and you’re comfortable. And I’ve been comfortable here for the past three and half years. 

“Changing up that pace and what I’ve done with a small-town feel, it’s been really fun. It’s been the best part of my life up until now. Leaving early is bittersweet. I have enjoyed my time here so much, the people I’ve met here and the experiences I’ve had here. It’s something I will never, ever take for granted.”

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Jordyn Poulter sets against Brazil on May 27 in the 2021 VNL/FIVB photo

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