Illini volleyball head to Ole Miss Invitational

By Drew Friberg, Sports Editor

On Saturday, No. 17 Illinois volleyball kicks off the season with its opening match in the Ole Miss Invitational against No. 9 Georgia Tech, before a second match of the weekend against tournament hosts Ole Miss on Sunday.

This match comes just 19 days after head coach Chris Tamas was able to coach his team for the first time this fall. After a long hands-off summer, Tamas is ready for the team’s opening weekend.

“All coaches wait for this,” Tamas said. “You’re waiting all summer to see what your team does, or what they have done over the summer in preparation for the season. It’s a short turnaround from our first practice to our first game.”

Coming into the season, the Illini remain ranked in the top 25 by the American Volleyball Coaches Association after finishing the regular season ranked 23rd in 2021. Hoping to continue climbing in conference and national rankings, Tamas bolstered his lineup with four new recruits in the offseason, after losing All-American opposite Megan Cooney, defensive specialist Taylor Kuper and setter Kylie Bruder last season.

Freshman setter Bianca May, freshman middle blocker Cari Bohm and freshman outside hitter Sophie Stevenson all have no collegiate experience yet; However, sophomore transfer opposite Kayla Burbage joins Illinois after one season at Mizzou playing as a middle blocker and tallying a team-high 87 blocks.

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Tamas said he is extremely impressed with what he has seen from his new players so far on the court, but is also happy with the team culture ahead of an incredibly tough season schedule.

“I think they are doing great,” Tamas said. “You’ve got a handful of freshmen and a transfer, and I think this year more than any, they’ve been well integrated into the team. I think that goes hats off to the leadership on this team and the returners as well. It’s a good team vibe right now and we are looking forward to continuing that as the season gets going.”

In addition to the exciting and young talent added to this year’s roster, the Illini also have some key returners from 2021. 

Junior outside hitter Raina Terry garnered preseason All-Conference honors in early August after a campaign that saw her lead the Illini in kills, with a total of 441. Additionally, veteran leadership from redshirt senior setter Diana Brown and senior middle blocker Kennedy Collins will help the Illini in tough matches, like their matches this weekend.

Georgia Tech are coming off a 26-6 2021 season, where it finished in the elite eight of the NCAA Tournament after losing 3-1 to No. 1 seed Louisville. The Yellowjackets’ main threat comes from two-time All-American senior outside hitter Julia Bergmann. Bergmann’s impressive 2021 included 29 matches where she put up double-digit kills, and eight matches with 20+ kills. If the Illini want to upset Georgia Tech, neutralizing Bergmann will need to be a priority.

Ole Miss enters the season unranked, but is still a threat to any team in the country. All-SEC junior middle blocker Sasha Ratliff is one of the Rebels’ key returners, after a season tallying 266 kills, the second most on the team. 

In a season of change for Illinois, this first weekend will be a big test. Illinois’ matches begin at the Ole Miss Invitational on Saturday, with its match against No. 9 Georgia Tech at 3 p.m. Afterwards, it will continue with its match against Ole Miss at 1 p.m. on Sunday.


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