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Illinois volleyball ready to forget about disappointing season

Illinois%E2%80%99+Brandi+Donnelly+passes+the+ball+during+the+match+against+Northwestern+at+Huff+Hall+on+Oct.+15.+The+Illini+won+3-0.+Former+head+coach+Kevin+Hambly+left+the+University+to+coach+at+Stanford.+
Illinois’ Brandi Donnelly passes the ball during the match against Northwestern at Huff Hall on Oct. 15. The Illini won 3-0. Former head coach Kevin Hambly left the University to coach at Stanford.

Illinois’ Brandi Donnelly passes the ball during the match against Northwestern at Huff Hall on Oct. 15. The Illini won 3-0. Former head coach Kevin Hambly left the University to coach at Stanford.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois’ Brandi Donnelly passes the ball during the match against Northwestern at Huff Hall on Oct. 15. The Illini won 3-0. Former head coach Kevin Hambly left the University to coach at Stanford.

By Jacob Diaz, Staff writer

Brandi Donnelly, the libero of the Illinois volleyball team, said at the beginning of the 2016 season that the Illini had as high hopes as they do every season.

Donnelly, in her third season at Illinois, anchored the defense of a team with playoff expectations and championship dreams.

“We had hopes of making it to the Final Four (and) the national championships. Every good, top program has that goal,” Donnelly said.

But things started to fall apart for the Illini during the second half of the season when they lost seven in a row during conference play. Donnelly thought that part of what hurt the Illini during the poor stretch was their expectation to make the playoffs.

“We just didn’t have the right mindset,” Donnelly said. “We just kind of expected that we would go to the tournament. It seemed like the whole year we thought we would flip a switch and things would change, but we never did.”

The Illini won three of their last four, and on the day of the NCAA tournament selection show, the team gathered at former head coach Kevin Hambly’s house with hopes of hearing their names called.

“Going in to the show, we thought our chances were about 50-50,” Donnelly said. “Watching the show, everyone was very anxious, but very optimistic, because in our heads it was like, ‘How could we not make the tournament?’”

But as the show reached its conclusion, and the last name was about to be read, the Illini had yet to hear what they wanted to hear. Donnelly’s teammate Ali Bastianelli remembers the moment well.

“When they called the last team, and it wasn’t us, the room just went silent,” Bastianelli said. “Part of me thinks that we were hoping to be that bubble team that made it to the tournament. But after the season we had, I really don’t think we deserved to be in that position.”

After the dust settled on the season, the volleyball team’s story took an unexpected twist when Hambly inexplicably missed practice one afternoon.

“We had a Monday or a Tuesday practice, and (Hambly) wasn’t there,” Donnelly said. “We all thought he was recruiting. We got called to a team meeting after practice, and it wasn’t a day that we normally had a meeting, so we all thought it was weird.”

Illinois Director of Athletics Josh Whitman greeted the team, bearing the news that Hambly was leaving to take over the head coaching role for recently crowned national champions Stanford.

Just as the program caught its breath with Hambly’s resignation, Whitman hired a new head coach, former Nebraska assistant coach Chris Tamas, just two weeks later.

Bastianelli said as soon as the team heard the news, the players, who only knew Tamas as an assistant at Nebraska, all scrambled to their computers to find out more about their new leader.

Both Bastianelli and Donnelly have found the transition from Hambly to Tamas easy, and both players think that Whitman found a good fit for the program.

Illini assistant coach Jason Mansfield, who left Stanford to join Hambly just a year before his superior went the other way, also thinks that the transition has gone smoothly.

“I don’t think the last couple of months could have gone any better,” Mansfield said of the beginning of the Tamas era. “He’s come in and changed a couple of things, kept a couple of things the same, and the girls have really responded well.”

With a sizable incoming class of nine players joining a new coach, many fresh faces will debut at Huff Hall in the fall, and both Mansfield and the players are excited for what the future may hold.

Bastianelli, who led the nation in blocks last season, said her focus will be on becoming more than a blocker, something that Tamas has emphasized since taking over.

For Donnelly, the improvement she is looking to make has less to do with the on-the-court product and more to do with her role as the team’s only senior.

“I want to work on becoming more of a vocal leader,” Donnelly said. “I’ll have to hold all the freshmen accountable and just work on being engaged and playing at a high level in every practice.”

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@Jacob_Diaz31

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