CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — It’s been more than one calendar year since the Illinois volleyball team has played someone besides themselves. COVID-19 postponed the traditional fall season for the Big Ten, leaving the Illini plenty of time to practice. All tings considered, fourth-year head coach Chris Tamas wasn’t all that disappointed with having to wait, it’s given him plenty of time to practice as he tries to replace five starters lost from last year’s NCAA tournament team. Questions remain though heading into Friday afternoon’s season opener at Iowa, and only matches against someone else will help him find the answers.
“We get so used to playing each other,” Tamas said on a Zoom call with media this week. “I think we’re pretty good evaluators of what good volleyball looks like, but is it a bad attack or great defense play and vice versa.”
Illinois is playing a one-of-a-kind 22-match conference only spring season, all leading up to the NCAA tournament in April. Teams will play the same opponent twice in one week, usually back-to-back days at the same location. The Illini have made the tournament every year under Tamas, including a trip to the Final 4 in 2018. Only five players remain from that team that went 32-4, losing in the National Semifinals to Nebraska. Those remaining from that historic team remember the run fondly, but they’re ready to leave their own mark, while continuing the high expectation of success.
“It was awesome, that run was awesome and I will never forget it,” Illinois redshirt sophomore setter Diana Brown said. “But just like you said, we have all new players, all new people, our opponents are all new. It’s important to remember what that feels like but also we’re a new team. It’s time to make our own statement.”
“We’re always updating goals for each team, so that has been our focus,” Illinois senior outside hitter Megan Cooney said. “What are our goals for this season? And taking it one season at a time.”
Illinois is testing for COVID-19 daily, in accordance with the Big Ten policies. After returning to campus this summer, it has been a grind to get to this point, but the teams says it’s worth it to be able to finally take the court.
“An opportunity to play right now is an opportunity to play so we’re going to take it,” Tamas said. “No matter what time of year it would have come.”
The Illini are picked to finish 8th in the Big Ten preseason poll. The first home match is next weekend, when the nation’s top-ranked team Wisconsin comes to Huff Hall. No fans are allowed at Huff Hall right now due to COVID-19 protocols.