CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — Illinois volleyball officially tipped off its season on Tuesday with the first practice. The Illini are looking to build off a trip to the Sweet 16 that included an upset of Kentucky on its home court, the defending national champions. The Illini have to replace longtime starters Megan Cooney and Taylor Kuper, who both graduated, but do return their best hitter, blocker and setter.

Junior outside hitter Raina Terry led the team in kills last season, senior middle blocker Kennedy Collins anchored the Illini defense and Diana Brown held it all together leading the squad in assists. Collectively they will take over as leaders, something Collins says she’s been embracing throughout summer workouts, knowing her team needs her play on the court and leadership off of it.

“I think that just gives me the confidence knowing that my team is behind me, that gives me the confidence to do both,” Collins said.

Chris Tamas starts his sixth season at Illinois with plenty of expectations after taking the program to four NCAA tournament appearances, three trips to the Sweet 16 and a Final Four appearance in 2018. Having returners like Terry, Collins and Brown back give Tamas confidence heading into the fall.

“It’s always important to have that returning leadership and mainly for this timeframe right now where they’ve been together all summer when coaches can’t have contact with them and so it’s important for them to have that continuity and being able to express to everyone else what they want out of the season.”

Illinois opens the season Aug. 27 against Georgia Tech at the Ole Miss Invitational.