Illinois Volleyball is in a tough spot. After notching nine wins in eleven matches, it seemed like a once-improbably push for postseason play was on the cards... until they met the Golden Gophers. More about Illinois’ once-prospective postseason hopes, the story behind Raina Terry’s return and the murmurs surrounding the RPI.
The story heading into Friday’s match against the Minnesota Golden Gophers was that Illinois had a bad start to the season. They were riddled with injuries and had a few bad early-season losses, which derailed what was supposed to be another strong year for Chris Tamas and company.
They started the season 7-10, and while the less-than-desirable start could be attributed to a number of things, the November version of Illinois Volleyball is much stronger than the August version.
“The word we keep going back to is ‘growth’,” says junior opposite/outside hitter Kayla Burbage. “We’re continuing to grow, we’re continuing to get better.”
This growth can be seen in the results after the 7-10 start. Chris Tamas’ team won nine of their last 11 heading into an important match on Friday at Minnesota.
“We know we have to win these next two, especially against a strong Minnesota team to at least have a shot to get looked at,” Tamas said.
Illinois left Minneapolis with a 3-0 loss, their seventh three-set loss of the season.
Postseason volleyball will be something that the entire team will push for, if not for the seniors on the team. Kennedy Collins, Jessica Nunge and Vanessa Pan played their last games at Huff Hall last week, and they’ll need a good performance to ensure the game at Welsh–Ryan Arena in Evanston isn’t the last of their collegiate careers.
Raina Terry was one of the seniors celebrated after the win over Michigan last Saturday, but this season won’t be her last dance. She announced she’d return for a fifth year, her COVID year, at the end of Senior Night ceremonies.
RAIN(A) ON THE FORECAST FOR 2024
Two days after the NCAA announced that a bonus year of eligibility would be offered to athletes, Chris Tamas called Raina Terry, who was in her dorm room. At the time, she was just a freshman but the Illinois head coach asked her if she’d like to stay for that extra fifth year.
“I was like, ‘Oh, that’s so far away but sure, yeah! I’ll do it,’” Terry said. “There was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to go anywhere else.”
“She’s learned how to kill the ball from pretty much every spot on the court,” Tamas said on Terry’s growth since arriving at Illinois. She’s also flourished as a leader on and off the court, having the “tough conversations” with her teammates, according to Tamas.
“She’s definitely really embraced that role,” Burbage said. “I get to learn a lot from her, but being able to play with her one more year is going to be really special.”
As a freshman in the 2020-21 season, she started 17 of the 18 games in the shortened conference-only schedule and led the team in kills with 210.
The hope for Chris Tamas and his staff is also that the prospect of playing with Terry could help on the recruiting trail.
“I think Raina makes every day in practice more competitive. It almost makes playing in games easier because your practices are so hard,” said Jessica Nunge, a fifth-year senior who transferred from Florida State after her sophomore year.
Terry has a lot on the line in 2024. If she replicates what she’s done in 2023, she’ll easily surpass the current leaders to become Illinois’ all-time leader in kills and service aces.
“I think the stats are nice and the records are nice,” Tamas said. “At the end of the day, I would put her as a person and as a teammate as the biggest stat that’s out there.”
“BEAT THE COMPUTER SYSTEM”
“[The Big Ten] could legitimately have teams that are sub-.500 in the conference that are pretty good,” Tamas said.
He and Purdue head coach Dave Shondell shared their thoughts on the importance of the RPI system and of the future of Big Ten Volleyball on X last week.
Agree w/ Dave w/ caveat…RPI should not be the leading metric for @NCAAVolleyball bids. RPI doesn’t consider important factors. Job of the committee is to consider #’s, BUT get the best 64 teams in the playoffs. Fans want to see great VB. Only way our sport gets more coverage. https://t.co/JOetvDoUoK— Chris Tamas (@coachtamas) November 19, 2023
“If we’re just trying to beat the computer system, that’s not the way to do it. Fans want to see good volleyball and you can’t be punished for trying to schedule tough,” Tamas said.
Tamas says his and Shondell’s tweets are from “conversations that we’ve had as a conference and as a sport.”
Those conversations have involved the introduction or inclusion of different ranking indexes, like the Pablo Rankings and the Massey Ratings. Respectively, Illinois ranks 69th and 51st in these metrics, in comparison to 85th in the RPI.
The Illinois steam engine was at ‘full speed ahead’ after back-to-back wins to close the Huff Hall ticket booth for the season, but the loss at Minnesota may have derailed hopes of a postseason selection.
A win against Northwestern on Saturday may not be enough for fans to see the December version of Illinois Volleyball.