Expectations have surrounded Erin Virtue's volleyball career at Illinois. She came in as the younger sister of an All-Conference setter and entered her senior year as a Preseason All-Big Ten selection. Virtue starred on both a state champion and AAU club national champion team the year before she joined the Illini. Virtue, one of five children, has been able to deal with those expectations, disappointments, and varied commitments because of the support she receives from her entire family.
Despite the expectations, Virtue was frustrated towards the beginning of her college career. Unlike her older sister, Katie, who started at setter as a freshman, Erin Virtue saw limited action in her first year. Knowing that her sister had made an immediate impact at Ohio State made it difficult for Erin to sit the bench, but she knew that eventually she would get her chance. "She started as a freshman, and I didn't, that made it rough," Virtue said. "I knew that she was making her foot print on her program, but I also knew my time would come; I knew I had to continue to work hard on my own and at practice."
Throughout Erin's freshman and sophomore years, as Katie was setting the career record for assists at Ohio State, the sisters frequently talked about their individual situations. "She has always been a big inspiration for me. It was comforting to have someone to go to when there were struggles. Someone who had been through many of the same things I had." Erin continued working hard and saw more playing time as a reserve in here sophomore season while the team finished with a 13-16 record. However, the hard work finally paid off in her junior year, in which Virtue tallied 1,627 assists, the fifth most in school history and Illinois finished second in the conference, the highest finish the school has had since 1992. Virtue not only received her first All-Big Ten Team selection, but was also awarded the team's "Sandy Scholtens Award for Athletic Achievement, Effort, and Attitude," which she also won as a freshman. However, even with all of her successes, Virtue has never taken her opportunities and responsibilities for granted.
Erin credits her parents for being the most important influence on her life, both as an athlete and as a person. "They have taught me to take what God gave me and go with it. Take advantage of the talents I have and work hard to make them better." Because Erin's father is a pilot, her parents have been able to attend the majority of events that all five of their children have been involved in. "They have always supported me. They are the first ones at all my games. Sometimes I take them for granted, but my whole family has been very supportive." Erin says that whether they arrive by plane or in the family's conversion van, the Virtues do their best to enjoy the match, both in the stands and while tailgating with the team's other families. However, having siblings that have attended other major institutions has caused some controversies at family get-togethers. "Since there are two of us that go to Illinois, one that went to Ohio State, and two at Notre Dame, we often joke around about who beat whom and who was doing better. There might be a little sibling rivalry there."
Despite all of the honors and accolades that she has received on the court, Virtue has made both her academics and giving back to the community a priority in her life, both commitments that she says her family has instilled in her. A kinesiology major, Virtue has been named to consecutive Academic All-Big Ten teams and actively joins teammates in tutoring and reading to children at West View Elementary School near campus. Erin is also looking forward to becoming more involved with the newly formed Fellowship of Christian Athletes on Illinois' campus after the conclusion of the season. Virtue says that while the demands of volleyball, school, and service have put a demand on her time that she is not any different than any other college athlete. "You have to maintain a delicate balance, but it is a balance that all Big Ten athletes have had to learn. Every free moment you have, you have to try to get things done. Whether it is on the bus or the plane, you are always trying to make the most of any extra time you have."
Virtue came into this season as one of four seniors on a team that reached the Sweet 16s in 2003 and immediately began to take a leadership role. Despite being an All-American last year, when Virtue looked at this new season, she focused not on how to excel personally, but on how she could make the incoming players better. "Since I am on court constantly, I need to be the steady player. I want be a rock to the new girls, so that they can adjust to playing at this level." Virtue and the other three seniors take their responsibility as team leaders very personally. "This is our fourth year together, and coming in, we knew we wanted to take this program to new heights. We want to take it past the successes of last year and we are pushing for that every day." Virtue feels that this year's team has the potential to earn the school's first Big Ten title in twelve years. "We have lots of returnees from last year. We are a strong ball control team, but we also know that we play in a very strong conference. Any given night we can be beaten or we can beat someone else. The advantage we have is that we now know how to prepare. We are fighters."
Many surrounding the Illinois volleyball program are anxious to build upon the success of last season. The Illini reached the Sweet 16 for the ninth time in school history and the first since 1998, but Virtue is looking further than that for 2004. "In a competitive atmosphere, wins and losses are the main determinant of success. We work on the little things every day that can help us reach our goals. We have set our standards very high this year. While making it back to the Sweet 16 is one of our goals, it isn't our highest."
Already this season, Illini has had its share of ups and downs. The high of the non-conference season came as Illinois ended the longest unbeaten streak in women's volleyball history, when they defeated two-time defending national champion, the USC Trojans, in the finals of the State Farm Illini Classic, played at Illinois' Huff Hall. The celebration was short-lived however, as the Illini then traveled to in-state foe Loyola-Chicago and received their first defeat of the season. However, the subsequent loss has not tainted Virtue's memory of the historic victory over USC. Virtue said that ending the Trojans' 52-game winning streak is easily her favorite volleyball moment because of "the way in which we did it. We played as a team. We had no doubts that we would win that match if we played as hard as we could."
Virtue says that the support for Illinois volleyball has continued to grow and that the fans only help the team on the court. Illinois ranked 14th in the country in home attendance last year, averaging 1,600 fans a game. "It really means a lot; it sparks us as a group. It is so much fun playing in front of our home crowd and our families. It really adds to the environment." The Illini, who are currently ranked 13th in the country, open up conference play this Friday at home against Purdue.
Erin is still uncertain about where life might take her after graduation, but she is positive that volleyball will be involved some how. "I am still trying to decide whether I want to try to play overseas at all and for how long (as her sister Katie did) or somehow get into coaching at collegiate level."
(On Wednesday September 22nd, it was learned that Erin Virtue suffered a tear of her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her right knee. The injury occured in Illinois' September 17th victory over Ball State. Virtue will miss the remainder of the 2004 season.)