Illinois volleyball coach Kevin Hambly thoroughly enjoyed having Erin Johnson on his team for four years, as well as last season as a student assistant coach.
“If she ever wants to be, she’d be a great coach,” Hambly said. “She wants to be a doctor, although there’s not much of a future in that.”
Of course, Hambly was joking.
Johnson, a 2009 Crystal Lake South graduate, finished her bachelor’s degree in kinesiology at Illinois in December and eventually plans to pursue medical school. But, for the next few months, she will enjoy playing volleyball professionally for Asko Linz-Steeg, an Austrian team in the MEVZA (Middle European Volleyball Zonal Association).
The 2008 Northwest Herald Volleyball Player of the Year joined her team two weeks ago and lives with three other American players. Johnson knew when her eligibility was up after the 2012 season that her playing days were not yet finished.
“I decided I wanted to pursue playing professionally when I was a senior,” said Johnson, a 6-foot-3 middle blocker. “I always kind of expected to keep playing. I was a student assistant for the Illinois team, so I still practiced with them and was kind of a coach. It was fun.”
And now, Johnson has embarked on a different adventure. She has been to Europe before, but only for stays of around two weeks. She will play with her team until mid-April before returning to the U.S.
Johnson signed with Bring It Promotions, which helps college players find professional teams outside the U.S. Earlier this month, she took part in an exposure tour for 10 days, where coaches from teams can evaluate players. She joined Asko Linz-Steeg and will play against other MEVZA teams from Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia.
“The team wasn’t doing very well now. I think that’s why they were looking for some other players,” Johnson said. “Some players had to stop and there were people out of position, so they were looking to fill out their roster.”
The language barrier has not posed many problems, since many people speak English and Linz-Steeg coach Jiri Stiller runs practices in English rather than German.
“It’s different seeing college volleyball and this kind of volleyball,” she said. “It’s just the little things that are different too, like you can’t buy milk in gallons over here. I have to buy it every day.”
Hambly calls Johnson one of his favorite players in his five seasons at Illinois. He was an Illinois assistant when he recruited Johnson.
“I saw her as a freshman and I believed in her,” Hambly said. “I don’t know how to explain it, we were trying to build and we didn’t get the greatest athletes. She’s not a freakish athlete, but she got so much out of herself. She could play and she understood the game. There are so many things I love about her. I love that kid.”
Johnson made her mark with the Illini, particularly in 2011 when they were NCAA runners-up to UCLA. Hambly considered Johnson a real asset as a student assistant this season with two young middle blockers that she could help.
“She’s a great volleyball player, a great communicator, it was fun to have her around to talk to,” Hambly said.
What is next for Johnson is uncertain.
“The season ends in mid-April and I’ll come home,” she said. “I have not decided if I’ll be playing here next year or not.”