Player of the Year watch: A punny thing happened on Ali Bastianelli's way to the record book

Courtesy Illinois Athletics

With new swing mechanics and a greater emphasis on a middle attack, Ali Bastianelli is thriving at Illinois.

Each week during the volleyball season, we'll recognize a player whose recent performances reinforce her place among the best in the nation. Consider it our way of checking in on, or in some cases introducing, the personalities who will shape the race for espnW player of the year.

She's the all-time leading blocker in Illinois volleyball history, but Ali Bastianelli's coach has crowned his middle blocker "the queen of puns."

Joan Bastianelli might have something to say about that.

A tradition of pun-upmanship between daughter and mother extends well beyond the Bastianelli household thanks to the power of Instagram.

"GoFORit" Joan Bastianelli reminded her daughter before an Illini game at Minnesota earlier this month.

"I don't want to (Michigan) State the obvious. But we have two more B1G games this weekend," Ali quipped heading into games against No. 13 Michigan (17-2, 6-2) and Michigan State (15-6, 3-5) at Huff Hall.

Last season a video Ali Bastianelli posted about game day in Huff Hall being "long over (Pur)due" got more than 6,200 views.

Bastianelli, who tries to include a pun in every caption she posts, is a chip off the old block. In more ways than pun.

Joan Bastianelli, herself once a middle blocker, set records for total blocks and solo blocks at Division II Northwood University.

Ali set the career mark in blocks last week for the Illini -- she has bedeviled opponents for 666 blocks in her career to this point. That ranks as the most blocks of any active player in Division I, and of course, the 6-foot-3 senior isn't done. She's three blocks shy of becoming the Big Ten career leader in block assists -- a feat she's likely to accomplish this weekend for the seventh-ranked Illini.

Ali averages 1.43 blocks per set, a mark that ranks her sixth nationally. (Her 1.57 career average leads Division I.) She's the most efficient hitter on the team (.380) and coming off a monster performance against Wisconsin.

Illinois (16-3, 5-3), ranked seventh, hadn't beaten the Badgers since 2013 until last weekend's dramatic four-setter. The Big Ten showdown featured a battle of elite middles in Bastianelli vs. 6-8 Dana Rettke. Bastianelli posted a .476 hitting percentage in addition to 6 blocks and 11 kills. One of those clinched the match.

"It was crazy," she said.

Before all the blocks, Ali gravitated toward the setter position, but found it lacking. "I wanted to put the ball away," she said.

Admittedly uncoordinated, she also tried her hand at being a right side hitter at Maryville High School, a town across the river from Ontario. But she found herself colliding with her older sister, Samantha, the setter "on almost every play."

Toward the end of the season, Bastianelli said, she was moved to the middle. "Being in the center of everything, I took it as a challenge. I didn't want to look like a freshman. I wanted to blend in."

Of course, now she stands out thanks to her dominant presence at the net and a better all-around game that has been integral to the growth of this Illinois team that started the season 14-0.

"She reads setters really well; she takes her time to learn what other setters do and what other hitters do," said Illini coach Chris Tamas, who noticed how special she was at doing that when she was a freshman and he was scouting against her as an assistant to John Cook at Nebraska. "She doesn't read eyes; she reads body position."

Under Tamas, who took over at Illinois two years ago after Kevin Hambly left for Stanford, Bastianelli developed into a strong all-around player.

"I was a setter, so I like our setters to set our middle," Tamas said. "When I came, we had some mechanics we had to fix. Not that they weren't using her before I was here, but having the middles as a big part of our system is an emphasis. She's done really well making those changes. She's worked really hard on our slide attack."

Bastianelli never considered herself much of an offensive weapon, and surgery on her shoulder the spring of her freshmen year forced her to abandon the hitting motion she had always relied on.

"I actually wasn't hitting the right way," she said. "I relearned the mechanics. It's now a throwing mechanic instead of something that could hurt my shoulder again. It's been a good transition for me to learn to re-hit because my shoulder doesn't hurt anymore."

Becoming a vocal leader has become part of her game, not that she was ever shy. As impressed as Tamas is with Bastianelli's work ethic, he's blown away by her knowledge of the seemingly random -- for example her affection for '80s pop.

"Toto's 'Africa,' Billy Idol," he said. "She knows the words to everything from the '80s, which is impressive for her age."

She's also an expert on every Leonardo DiCaprio movie, a Detroit Lions buff and, of course, she's constantly coming up with new puns. Depending on Illinois' opponent, she may post on social media that the team "needs a (Creigh)ton of support," or that you will "have a great chance to Sea(ttle) us play Washington tonight."

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