CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — February 10, 2017.
Illinois’ volleyball team, coming off its first missed NCAA Tournament in four years, sat around a table with somber looks on their faces. Head coach Kevin Hambly had just accepted the same job at Stanford, leaving Illinois and Director of Athletics Josh Whitman with a vacancy.
Whitman hired 36-year-old Nebraska assistant Chris Tamas.
“Hey, if you guys stick with me,” Tamas said, “this is going to be a good ride.”
Now, 20 months later, Illinois will likely be named a No. 1 seed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
As No. 4 Illinois concluded its 28-3 regular season — its best record since finishing as NCAA Tournament runners-up in 2011 — on Saturday night with a four-set win (25-18, 23-25, 25-22, 25-15) over No. 12 Purdue, the Illini celebrated the three seniors: Blayke Hranicka, Jordyn Poulter and Ali Bastianelli.
To the sold-out crowd at Huff Hall, Bastianelli, teary eyed, said: “I wasn’t sure if I should stay, but it worked out. I gotta say it did.”
It is easy to say it definitely worked out.
Illinois’ 28 victories are its most since 2011. Before 2011, Illinois had not won more than 26 matches since Mike Herbert’s 32-4 squad in 1992. And over his first two seasons in Champaign, Tamas has a 51-14 record.
Two of the teams ahead of Illinois in the AVCA polls this week — BYU and Minnesota — lost this weekend, opening up a spot for Illinois to jump as high as No. 2 in the national rankings.
The only team ahead of the Illini?
Hambly’s Stanford Cardinal.
“Coaching changes are always tough, and the people you came to play for may not necessarily be here at the end of it,” Tamas said. “Whether it’s retirement, a change of jobs, or whatever, I’ve done it four times as an assistant now. I know what that’s like, I know there can be uncertainty.”
Clearly Illinois seemed to respond after the coaching change.
Following a Sweet 16 appearance last year — Bastianelli and Poulter’s second in three years with Illinois — the Illini have their sights set even higher this year, with the potential to host Tournament matches through the Elite Eight if they are named a No. 1 seed.
Bastianelli said she was concerned about the size of the crowd for Senior Night on Saturday since University students are still on Thanksgiving break, but Huff sold out, filling the 4,152 seats to the brim with Orange and Blue, which she and her team believes is quite the advantage.
“I just appreciate everyone who makes Huff what it is,” said the middle blocker. “Every game we draw a crowd like that. And every game I need to think, ‘I can't take this for granted.’”
Poulter took it a step further, recognizing the sacrifices everyone around the program has made for quick ascent to the top.
“I wasn’t planning on [crying],” Poulter said. “But when you realize how much really goes into what we do here and all the people behind us, the years of sacrifice our families have made, and the coaching staff in their lives, and sacrifices in our personal lives, the people who just really come out on Fridays and Saturday nights to support us. There’s definitely other things people could be doing, but they choose to be here with us.”
In front of the energized Huff Hall, both teams took multiple-point leads in the first set before Illinois was able to pull away in the first frame, 25-18. Beth Prince’s hustle late gave the Illini a 21-16 edge over the Boilermakers and enough momentum to close the set out.
Trailing 20-15 out of a timeout, Illinois strung together a 4-point rally to cut back into Purdue’s lead. The Illini cut the deficit to 24-23 before Purdue won the final point on Hayley Bush’s block.
With the match tied at one set apiece, Illinois roared out of the gate in the third set, taking an early 6-2 lead. Purdue tied it up at 11, but Jacqueline Quade’s 15th kill on the night — finishing with 21 kills — seemed to give the momentum advantage to the Illini with a 12-11 lead. But the set continued to be back-and-forth with 11 ties. Illinois finished off the set, 25-22, with a huge block from Ashlyn Fleming and Megan Cooney.
In the fourth and decisive set, Illinois put together a complete effort. The Illini took the lead early and never really looked back, extending their lead to 19-12. Illinois eventually won the set, 25-15, taking the match in four sets.
“I think we learn something new every match, honestly,” Poulter said. “I don’t know that we were in our groove tonight at any point in the first, second or third set, but it’s really promising to know that even if we’re not playing our best, another team is coming out hard but we can still keep our composure and take care of what we need to.”
The Illini have won 13 straight matches, finishing only behind Minnesota in the Big Ten standings.
“It was one heckuva season,” Tamas said. “Starting with the preseason. We set up a tough preseason schedule and you get worried it may grind you down before you get to the Big Ten, but we just kept going along. They’ve had that workmanlike mentality since they’ve been here, and they just keep responding to every challenge we give them and every challenge every matches throws at them.
On the streak, Poulter said: “To go 13 matches with wins has been kind of incredible. It just shows the work we put in early in the season and the work that we put in during practice every day. It’s paying off for us.”
Before getting back to the practice court on Monday, Illinois will wait until Sunday night when the NCAA Tournament Selection Show airs on ESPNU. The program begins at 7:30 p.m. CT.
“There’s nothing else we can do,” Tamas said. “We just hope our body of work shows that we deserve that top-four seed.”
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