Illinois junior setter Jordyn Poulter is a competitor.
“I want to win games,” Poulter said. “Having fun for me is playing volleyball and being in highly competitive situations and experiencing and playing high-level volleyball. Coming out of that as the victor takes the cake for me.”
Poulter has done her fair share of cake-taking this season and hopes to take a little more Friday when Illinois faces Big Ten Conference foe Michigan State at Penn State in the NCAA Tournament round of 16.
When coach Chris Tamas took over, he addressed Poulter’s intensity.
“Him and I had conversations on how to be the most effective leader and teammate,” Poulter recalled. “Being more self-aware when I might start to slip into maybe a more intense mode and how others perceive that.”
A more intense mode?
“It’s very focused,” said Poulter, an all-Big Ten Conference selection for a second year in a row. “Some people think I need to be more relaxed when playing. I feel like the more dialed in I am, it’s almost like an oxymoron, the more dialed in and intense I am, the more I am able to not focus on the technical aspects of volleyball and that allows me to play free and see the game clearly.”
Tamas is a fan of that intensity.
“She’s very competitive and wants to win,” he said. “She isn’t afraid to step up and tell the team to step up. When I came in we talked and it wasn’t necessarily about delivering a softer message, but wanting people to understand her drive and passion. It’s a message that has worked really well.”
Tamas says the 6-foot-2 Poulter is one of the top setters in the country and the best blocking setter in the land. This season, she’s averaging not only 10.71 assists per set, but .86 kills, 2.43 digs and .90 blocks. She’s second on the team with 111 blocks, eight solo.
“She’s very athletic. She’s a dynamic setter,” Tamas said. “She’s able to move the ball around well. I came in and helped her with her location. We changed tempos and that helped with the location. She will take an average pass and make it into a good one and take the bad ones and make them decent. She has incredible range. That gives our players confidence.
“She will track it down and pass it around. She gets it. She’s not overly into herself. She’s all about the team. She wants to win and knows she needs a good team to do it and she’s been a big driver in that. I have a ton of respect for how she goes about her business and the drive and passion she has. She’s a special kid and a big reason why we are in the Sweet 16.”
Athletic intensity has been with Poulter since she can remember.
“It was instilled into me from a young age from my parents. No matter what we were doing at home, we wanted to win.”
That included her father, Bob, who coached at the high school level in Poulter’s home in Aurora, Colo., a suburb of Denver, and still coaches for club for Norco.
“Some parents ease up on kids when you are playing backyard game. He wanted my sister and I to be thirsty to win and he never eased up on us. We used to play a lot of dodgeball games. Three strikes and you are out. It was a lot of fun. What still is fun for me is going home and our family still gets together to play competitive pickup basketball games or small games in the backyard.”
Poulter gives a lot of credit to Tamas, who took over when Kevin Hambly left for Stanford.
“He trusts me a lot and lets me do what I want,” she said. “I have a lot of free rein going into matches with no restrictions. That allows me to play free without having to worry about if I want to execute the game plan on my end or his game plan. We’re on the same page.
“He trusts me with that and that’s a cool dynamic to have. Chris has a vision for this program and it’s something that has been easy to buy into. The way we’ve trained and the prep we’ve had for matches this season has gone a long way. From the beginning of the season our first and only goal was to win that first match against Gonzaga and then we took it one match at a time. Now our only goal is to beat Michigan State on Friday.”
Illinois is hitting .276 as a team and Poulter points to the team’s improved passing as a key factor.
“There has been a big emphasis on passing,” she said. “The better you pass the easier it is to run the offense how you want. The work our defensive specialists and our libero (Brandi Donnelly) have put in has paid off. The easier it is for me to run the offense, the more it opens up things for our attackers and the better numbers we are able to put up across the board.”
Donnelly, a senior, has rebounded nicely from a knee injury suffered earlier in the season.
“Brandi has done a phenomenal job,” Poulter said. “She had that knee injury and came back three weeks later and had a personal record for digs. She’s the only senior and there is an added pressure and drive for her. This is her last shot and I think she’s kind of feeling that a little. It’s been motivating to her in the right way.”
Poulter added the Illini also have been boosted by a strong showing from its freshmen class.
“All our freshmen have come into their own,” she said. “Even the ones not playing, we play against them in practice and they make the gym very competitive. We get better because of that.”
Illinois played Michigan State just once this season and got swept in East Lansing on November 4. The Illini bring a five-match winning streak into State College on Friday and is 7-0 in matches played at neutral sites this season.
“It’s hard to beat a team twice,” Poulter said. “We are better right now than when we played them and now we’ll be on a neutral court.
“I’m looking forward to it and everyone is looking forward to a battle. It’s always fun to play Big Ten schools. It’s exciting to see how successful the Big Ten is and how many teams from our conference are in the Sweet 16.”