Illinois volleyball enters NCAA tournament ready to make noise away from home


Photo Courtesy of Illini Athletics

Graduate student Megan Cooney (left) celebrates with fellow athletes on Nov. 21 for senior night before the game against Maryland. Illinois volleyball enters NCAA tournament ready to make noise away from home.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

On Sunday night, Illinois players, coaches, staff and friends packed into the Orange Krush Club at State Farm Center, waiting to hear their name called during the NCAA tournament selection show.

The Illini were sitting fairly comfortably after entering the night as the No. 23-ranked team in the country with a 20-11 record and finishing in the top half of the Big Ten, one of the toughest conferences in the country. 

Despite essentially being a lock, Illinois heard three regions of the bracket filled without any mention of the team from Champaign, though the announcement of “Illinois State” sent a collective groan through the room.

Finally, 51 teams later, the Illini got the reassurance they were looking for, learning they would be playing in Lexington, Kentucky, against the 19-9 West Virginia Mountaineers, which is making its first tournament appearance in program history, in the first round at 4 p.m. on Friday evening.

“It was nerve-wracking just being one of the last teams called,” said junior Kennedy Collins. “Based off numbers, I kinda knew we were gonna make it, but it was still — like that entire day I was anticipating it, and I just wanted to know who we were playing.”

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After finishing last season below .500 for the first time since 2012, Illinois was hungry to turn things around this year, and the returns of graduate students Megan Cooney and Kylie Bruder for their fifth seasons were major factors behind that improvement.

The Illini also were able to return to a normal schedule after playing only conference foes last spring due to a COVID-19-shortened season.

“I’m very grateful that I’ve been here for my fifth year to help get this team to kind of where we are now,” Cooney said. “It’s been a full team effort, and I’m just really excited to have been a part of this and really see our program change in just a short couple months.”

Head coach Chris Tamas praises his fifth-year seniors for their leadership and guidance throughout the year. Cooney finished the regular season with 344 kills, the second-most of her college career, and a career-high 29 aces alongside a .261 hitting clip.

Bruder may not have played as frequently, but the Florida native was one of the team’s top servers, registering a career-best 24 aces.

“That experience is definitely something that I think helps in the tournament,” Cooney said. “We’re playing at very high-pressure moments and to just help the younger ones through that. I mean I think playing in the Big Ten, we do play some high-pressure matches often, so we’re used to that feeling and experience.

“Every team is good in the tournament, so we’re just keeping everyone fresh and ready to go each match we’re given.”

The Big Ten led the country with eight teams in the tournament, while five of them — No. 4 Wisconsin, No. 6 Purdue, No. 9 Ohio State, No. 10 Nebraska and No. 12 Minnesota — will serve as hosts for the opening rounds of competition.

As an unranked at-large team, the Illini will not play any more matches at Huff Hall this season, though they are familiar with ranked road upsets this season.

Illinois knocked off then-No. 4 Purdue in West Lafayette in the team’s third Big Ten match of the season on Oct. 1 before triumphing over fellow tournament team Penn State, which was ranked 13th at the time, in four sets in University Park on Oct. 30.

Despite being away from home the rest of the season, Tamas knows his team is comfortable feeding off the energy of opposing fans and playing outside of Champaign, especially given the hostility of road environments in the Big Ten.

“Obviously it’s gonna be good, but … our team is well-versed on the road,” Tamas said. “We had some big wins against Penn State on the road, against Purdue on the road, and again I just go back to the conference preps us for everything.

“You can’t make that place louder than places we’ve already played in, and so we just have a lot of confidence going into other people’s gyms and showing them what we can do.”



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