When Chris Tamas first took over the Illinois Volleyball program back in February 2017, he inherited a relatively young squad with a couple of key, seasoned veterans. The first-year head coach turned some heads when he was able to piece together his team’s puzzle, reaching the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament before losing to a Big Ten foe, Michigan State.
The Illini only lost key defensive specialist Brandi Donnelly to graduation, but return a senior duo of Ali Bastianelli and Jordyn Poulter, both of whom were named to the preseason All-Big Ten team. The team also welcomes in freshmen Diana Brown and Taylor Kuper, and transfer Ashlyn Fleming from Pacific University.
“Last year, I didn’t quite know the team,” Tamas said Friday at the team’s media day. “Half the team was brand new so it was more getting used to playing with each other. Now that we’re coming back with an experienced group, we want to have a shot at potentially hosting the first couple rounds of the tournament. If you want to do that, you have to schedule a higher RPI.”
The Illini come into the season ranked 12th on many polls, setting the bar high for Tamas’ squad, just two years removed from missing the NCAA Tournament. The team travels to Fort Collins, Colorado, this Friday to take part in the Colorado State Tournament, and follow that trip up with a flight to Seattle to take on Colorado and Washington as part of the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge. And for those who don’t remember, Illinois upset No. 8 Washington in the Second Round of last season’s NCAA Tournament.
“This year is definitely going to be a big year for us,” said junior Jacqueline Quade.
Even though the Illini sit at No. 12 on the preseason polls, four fellow Big Ten teams sit above them. But a solid offseason has the team feeling like they’re already in the groove of things.
“What work we put in during the spring and summer carried over for us,” Poulter said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of relearning when we came in this preseason — just more fine-tuning, and that’s what you kind of hope when you put in that much work in the offseason. To be able to jump right in gave us a head up from where we were last year at this time.”
Poulter spent part of her summer playing with the U.S. National Team, ultimately winning a gold medal at the Pan American Cup. She will be asked to lean on that experience as both a senior and a member of the national team to lead a large group of underclassmen.
The team is poised for another great postseason run and could very well likely find itself playing for a national title come mid-December.
“Obviously there’s a lot of emotion behind this season,” Bastianelli said. “With the team we have and the coaches, it’s going to be a really special year, and I look forward to going out with a bang.”
With the majority of his roster returning, Tamas knows that the bar for his team is being set high this year.
“Take it one day at a time” — that’s been the message from the head coach since the start of the offseason.
The team starts the season this Friday at 1 p.m. CT out in Colorado where they will face the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Illinois follows that up with seven more matches on the road before finally returning home to take on Northern Iowa as part of the Illini Classic.