Illinois icon leaves impact on volleyball program

Twenty-two years ago, when volleyball games were played in Kenney Gym, when there was no libero on the court and when points could only be scored on the serve, Mary Eggers Tendler was the driving force behind the Illinois volleyball program.

The current head coach at Elon University established herself as a legend, being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 1985 and conference MVP and First-Team All-American in each of her following three seasons. The four teams she played on had 17 total losses and her teams in 1987 and 1988 went to the Final Four. In 1988 she earned the Honda Broderick Award, given to the nation’s top collegiate volleyball player. During her career (1985-88), the former middle blocker set all-time Illini records in aces, blocks, kills and hitting percentage, records that had not been touched — until now.

Senior players Johannah Bangert and Laura DeBruler broke two of Eggers’ records last week.

The two players were happy to be recognized with someone who left such an impact on the program. They have never met Eggers, they had never even seen her play.

“People just talk about her now, ‘She’s so great, she carried the team’ and all that type of stuff,” DeBruler said. “I really would have liked to see her play.”

Former Illinois head coach Don Hardin, who coached DeBruler and Bangert in their first two seasons, had the opportunity to see Eggers play. Hardin was the assistant coach for the first three seasons of Eggers’ time at Illinois.

“Jo and Laura have done what no player in over two decades has done in passing Mary’s records,” Hardin said.

Eggers said things were different back then, that matches sometimes lasted three hours, and with no libero, it was easier to get high statistics. But there are still similarities between her and the current Illini.

Both Eggers and DeBruler immediately said their favorite thing to do was hit, but they each acknowledged how much they like defense too, Eggers for being able to “frustrate the other team” and DeBruler for being able to stop kills.

It’s the competitive spirit that makes Eggers stand out.

“Mary was the most competitive player I can ever remember coaching,” Hardin said. “She willed herself and everyone around her to win. She was motivated to make changes in her game, difficult changes, because of this intense desire to succeed.”

He said Eggers would make up competitive games to pass the time, and that in her apartment were pictures from media guides of middle blockers in the Big Ten, with ‘X’ marks through the ones she had defeated and bulls eyes on the ones she had yet to conquer.

Now, Eggers prefers to be a fan and a coach. Last season she watched the people who would come to break her records, when they played Northwestern over Thanksgiving break. Her family lives in the area and she enjoyed the opportunity to see them live and to be a fan.

“They were just incredible, they worked really hard and were really competitive,” Eggers said.

She hasn’t been in Champaign since the alumni match in 1998 for her 10-year Final Four Team Reunion. At that match, her team accomplished a task that doesn’t happen very often — they defeated the varsity squad that went on to be a Sweet 16 team.

She thinks the breaking of her records is a good thing, because it brings back the history of the program and could signal a repeat of history.

She said although she didn’t get the opportunity to meet the players at Northwestern last season, she may one day.

“I would like to go and watch them play at the Final Four this year,” Eggers said. “We have our coaches convention at the same time as Final Four. Hopefully, the Illini will be there.”

Being a coach is how she keeps up with Illini volleyball, through American Volleyball Coaches Association, or AVCA, releases and rankings. And she sometimes sees current Illini head coach Kevin Hambly at different recruiting events. But it’s assistant coach Kent Miller that she knows the best, because he was the assistant coach when Eggers played on the national team.

Eggers also played professional volleyball in Europe. She spent a while playing on different adult teams, but for now she’s focused on coaching; occasionally playing on vacation or during the summertime for fun.

Eggers said she’s moved past her competitive days, as she has left her mark on Illini volleyball.

“Mary Eggers put Illinois volleyball on the map,” Hardin said. “At the time she was the first player to turn down West Coast options and remain in the Midwest. Her impact has left this amazing legacy which is just now, over 20 years later, getting eclipsed.”

Eggers just wants the current Illini to have the same type of experience she did, her best moment in volleyball being when her team won the Regional Final against Nebraska in Kenney Gym in 1987.

“When that bar is reset to a higher level, and it will be reset, the team that does that will have the same sense of accomplishment that we had back in 1987,” Eggers said.