Megan Cooney to return for fifth, final season


Photo Courtesy of Andy Westrand

Fighting Illini Athletics Senior Megan Cooney spikes the ball during competition. Cooney will return next year for a fifth season with Illinois volleyball.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

When Megan Cooney committed to Illinois as a bleary-eyed sophomore in high school, she was an elite prospect committing to play for an equally elite coach, Kevin Hambly, a man who had turned the program into a powerhouse capable of making deep runs in the NCAA tournament year after year.
But before she had even arrived on campus, Hambly had leveraged his success into a new head coaching job at Stanford and left Illinois with a vacancy at the helm.
At the time, Cooney was left in a flurry of confusion and unanswered questions as Illinois attempted to find a strong replacement as quickly as possible. Eventually, Illinois landed on Chris Tamas to fill the void, and one of the first things he did on the job was call Cooney.
“It was just a sigh of relief when Chris was hired and he brought on his staff,” Cooney said. “(After) the first phone call, (I knew) I trusted him. I decided I really like this coach; I want to play for him.”
Once that trust was established, Cooney got to work. Nonchalantly, she seized a starting spot the second week of her freshman year on a roster stocked with All-Americans and depth at every position. From that point on, the 6-foot-4-inch hitter started almost every match she played in and has been a mainstay of Illinois’ offense. Since Tamas made that decision to start Cooney in the 2017 season, results have followed.
“We were not seeded heading into the tournament in 2017, and we knocked off Washington on their home floor to make the round of 16,” Tamas said. “That (following) summer, everyone was on a mission, and (Cooney) was a big part of that. She was very strong for us on the right side. Big-time blocker on the right. She was very efficient as an attacker in a position in demand.”
Since her freshman year, Illinois has made the tournament two more times, including a run to the Final Four in 2018. This past season, however, the Illini went a dismal 7-11 and missed the tournament for the first time in Cooney’s career.
There are plenty of reasons for the subpar finish—the year was affected by COVID-19 complications, the team faced one of the toughest schedules in the nation and they lost redshirt freshman Ellie Holzman, who was expected to have a breakout season, to a torn ACL two weeks into the season — but the fall from having tournament expectations to enduring a 10-match losing streak was disappointing for everyone.
As the toughest season of her collegiate career neared its close, Cooney had a decision on her hands. The NCAA was allowing an extra year of eligibility for athletes that competed this season, so if Cooney wanted, she could come back and compete for a fifth year.
Four years after finding out she’d be playing for a different coaching staff than the one she committed to, Cooney was given something truly rare in life: an opportunity at a redo.
If she opted to come back next season, Cooney would get to play for exactly who she’d committed for in Tamas and his coaching staff. In doing so, she’d be doing more than just playing an extra season of volleyball; a commitment to come back to Illinois would also be an affirmation that the past four years had been worth it. Though Tamas wasn’t the coach she’d committed to in 2014, a decision to return would be as close as she could get a new commitment to him in 2021.
Ultimately, the decision for Cooney was relatively simple and came down to getting into Illinois’ graduate school for speech and hearing sciences to study her passion in speech pathology. Fortunately, she got in a few weeks ago, and she will now get one last chance to make a run next season.
“Not making the tournament this season is not how we wanted to end the season,” Cooney said. “I think it’s about getting another chance to show what our team is about and have a great season. I think this team has a lot of potential, so I’m really excited to get back in and work with everyone this summer and continue to grow and show all the talent that we have on this team.
“I’m excited to get another shot to play with the same girls again and prove ourselves this next season.”
Now entering her fifth season as an Illini, Cooney has experienced just about everything college volleyball has to offer, making her an invaluable asset as a leader on the team. Teammates often come to her for advice and rave about her rare calm disposition in a sport full of intense emotions.
“We have weekly team meetings, and she’s one that often speaks up,” Tamas said. “She’s not going to talk for the sake of talking. She’s going to speak with meaning, both out of experience and out of care for the team. You look for that in anyone, not just your seniors, but especially having all that experience behind her goes a long way. The team really listens to her.”
Cooney’s return is undeniably helpful for Illinois from a volleyball perspective, but it might be even better for them from a coaching sense. Tamas has yet to coach a match at Illinois without Cooney on the roster, and at this point, she’s a piece of the team’s soul.
This past season was a far cry from success, but with some momentum to end the season and an extra year of eligibility, Cooney has an opportunity to flip the script and have a storybook ending to her Illinois career. All she has to do now is take it.

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