DECATUR — For Millikin volleyball setter Olivia Grbavac, her first month at Millikin has been one she won't soon forget.
The freshman, from Skokie, was set to join a strong Big Blue team that was 7-3, 4-1 CCIW in the shortened spring season and was ranked the No. 6 team in Division III by the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) in the end of the year poll.
But before Millikin's first game, starting setter Reece Brown was injured and the responsibility fell on Grbavac to become the motor of the Big Blue's offense, while also adjusting to the college game that can last five grueling sets — nearly double the length of high school matches.
"(Physically), it has been really tough. Playing five sets can be really tiring but when you have such a strong team, with good passers who willing to work hard, you forget about your legs and you can focus on every point," Grbavac said.
Grbavac has already recorded 400 assists as the Big Blue have adjusted to the challenges, starting the season 10-1, 1-0 CCIW. Millikin is the No. 14-ranked team in the latest AVCA DIII poll.
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"We had some pretty big losses to graduation last year. Our setter and our libero, who were strong leaders for us, both graduated, so we weren't sure how things were going to start off," Millikin head coach Debbie Kiick said. "Immediately on day two, our setter had an injury and then we really had to restart. We have a great blend of experience and freshmen who pass really well and that combination together has been strong enough to keep us in position to win."
Coming to Decatur from Skokie for her first days of college was already a challenge for Grbavac but as she's embraced her leadership role on the team, she's seen a growth in her own confidence.
"In the beginning, I was a quiet little freshman and so it was kind of rough. Now that I've opened up and the seniors and captains do nothing but check in on you. They are always there for you," Grbavac said. "Off the court is what's really important to build that connection with the hitters and we've done that. They make me feel confident and that is what is important."
Grbavac and Millikin junior outside hitter Tori Stuart were named the CCIW's Women's Volleyball Student-Athletes of the Week last week during the team's 5-0 run. Grbavac had 52 digs during the week and recorded 32 assists, 13 digs, three blocks and two aces as Millikin defeated No. 15 Carthage College. Stuart, the team leader in kills in the spring, had a career-best 23 kills against Greenville University.
"Olivia has had to run a faster offense, develop chemistry with our hitters and learn the college game. That was a stretch for her and it really pushed her to have to get better fast. She has grown greatly in the last month from her skills to her volleyball IQ to her intensity with her teammates," Kiick said. "Tori is having a great season and she is definitely a go-to for us. In fact, we have to work on relying on everybody otherwise teams are going to load up on her. She is a key terminator for us."
The 3-1 victory against Carthage on Sept. 15 was a significant boost for the team. Carthage was responsible for all three of Millikin's loses last season.
"It was really big. Beating them was emotional, especially doing it in four (sets). Our team did a good job of holding each other together and our coaches did a great job of preparing us for the game," Stuart said. "Our bench really carried us through that and they were super load and super intense the whole time."
Millikin's CCIW schedule continues this week with a visit from North Park on Wednesday, and Kiick sees a level conference across the board.
"This is the most balanced our conference has been. Everybody is strong and I think this is the most parity and balance we have had top to bottom in my 21 years here," Kiick said. "Everyone will be contending. You can't have any off days.
As the season has blown past Grbavac's expectations, she is grateful for the support her teammates and coaches have lent her.
"I didn't really expect much (for my first season). I didn't think I would just come in here and be handed a position. I knew I had to work hard and being able to show off what I can do and what my teammates can do has been great," she said. "Having the team and coach that care about you so much as been great. (Coach Kiick) pushes you because she knows what you can do. It has been amazing."
As a captain, Stuart had high expectations for the season that includes a CCIW championship.
"I think we always know that we have the skill set to be undefeated or close to it. Coach always says we have a target on our back and that comes with our schedule and being nationally ranked. Having a good reputation of Millikin volleyball, we always have a target on our back," Stuart said. "I am so thankful to have this team. Going through COVID was mentally tough on everyone and coming back to a school that is really supportive of athletics has been amazing. We have a really strong team, a strong school and a strong coaching staff and that is what is getting us through this time."
🏈 39 historical Millikin football photos
Big Blue Football Coaching Staff
Bob Lockart returns as Millikin University quarterback
Charlie Sammis rests during a break in practice
Decatur-Macon County Gridders at Millikin
Future Blue Gridders
Helping hand offered
Linebacker Cary Bottorff
Milikin seniors in last game
Millikin Boasts Promising Freshman Backs
Millikin Gridders from Decatur
Millikin Team Went Undefeated
Millikin University Football Game
Millikin University Football Game
Millikin University Football Team
Seniors with a goal
Talking to coach
Contact Matthew Flaten at (217) 421-6968. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFlaten