Team now prepares to play 2017 champions
December 10, 2018
Although he’s typically known as a calm and cool personality, Illinois head volleyball coach Chris Tamas couldn’t hold back tears while reflecting on his team’s journey to qualify for the Final Four in his second season with the program.
“To do it as a head coach, just to know that maybe your ideas actually do work,” Tamas said. “The one thing I understood from the get-go is you need to create a great team to be really good at this sport. Doesn’t matter if you’ve got (All-Americans), it matters how the team, play(s) (as) the six of them.”
Illinois defeated conference foe and No. 8-ranked Wisconsin 3-1 in the Elite Eight on Saturday afternoon in what was an all-around strong performance from the team.
Senior setter Jordyn Poulter, who was named the Regional’s Most Outstanding Player, registered 51 assists in the game to add to her record-setting season. She knew the best way for the Illini to beat the Badgers was to take the game to them.
“Right from the get-go, we started attacking (Wisconsin) … I think that we did a great job from the service line putting pressure on them,” Poulter said.
For junior outside hitter Jacqueline Quade, it was another typical day at the office. She led the Illini with 25 kills and joined Poulter and senior middle blocker Ali Bastianelli with All-Region team accolades. Quade set a then-career high with 26 kills in the teams’ Oct. 13 regular season matchup, and Illinois needed her to deliver again on Saturday. She did not disappoint.
After defeating Washington in Seattle during last season’s tournament, Tamas’ team knew the pressure of defending the home court. However, they didn’t let it get to them, dropping just two sets in four matches at Huff Hall. The win against Wisconsin moved Illinois to 32-3 on the season, a nine-game improvement on what was considered a successful 2017 campaign.
Huff Hall crowd
Over 4,100 people packed into Hull Hall for Saturday’s contest, and the crowd’s support didn’t go unnoticed by the Illini, who went into the stands after the win for high-fives and to share thanks.
One of the distinct advantages the arena provides is its intimacy. Fans are closely packed in and screaming, which can disturb other teams’ communication.
Minneapolis’ 18,000-seat Target Arena, where the Final Four will be held, won’t allow the Illini the same advantages.
“Different environment that you have to expect some funny things to happen (in),” Tamas said. “It’s a different environment. When you get over there, there’s some hoopla that’s involved with it.”
While Quade, Poulter and Bastinelli received a majority of the praise this season, freshman defensive specialist Taylor Kuper, junior defensive specialist Caroline Welsh and sophomore libero Morgan O’Brien did most of the dirty work on the defensive end for the Illini.
On Saturday, the trio combined for 30 digs and did so with individual balance. O’Brien led the way with 11 digs but was closely followed by her teammates, as Kuper finished with 10 and Welsh with nine.
“Everyone’s role is important out there; you cannot have a weak link,” Tamas said. “Carol (Welsh) and Kup (Kuper) have really upped their game(s), and they’re really good in big moments. (Morgan) allows them to have those moments because you can’t serve (Morgan) either. It’s just one of those things where I don’t think we have many weaknesses in that game.”
On to Minneapolis
Illinois will meet fellow Big Ten opponent No. 7-ranked Nebraska in the national semifinal on Thursday. The two teams won in each other’s home gym during the regular season, which makes a neutral court meeting all the more competitive.
“It’s expected to see another Big Ten team on your way to doing all this,” Tamas said. “Once you get the round of 32, Sweet 16, everyone’s good. We’re battle tested.”
For the Cornhuskers, freshman setter Nicklin Hames nearly matched Poulter in assists in the two previous matchups, while senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke led them in kills each game. Nebraska took down Hofstra, 24-ranked Missouri, 10-ranked Kentucky and 14-ranked Oregon on its way to the Final Four. Since the Cornhuskers are closer to Minneapolis than the Illini are which could result in a pro-Cornhusker crowd, but that didn’t stop the Illini during the regular season.
Illinois has qualified for four Final Fours in program history but has never captured the National Championship. The closest effort was in 2011, when Illinois lost to University of California, Los Angeles in the final game. According to Tamas, being the first team to go all the way in school history would be special, but on Saturday, the team was just happy to be in the Final Four.
“We are aware that the last time we went was 2011, so we’re really proud of ourselves and happy that a lot of the alums got to see this,” Bastinelli said.