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Tamas to face off against familiar program

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Tamas to face off against familiar program

Illinois head coach Chris Tamas talks to his team during the match against Michigan at Huff Hall on Oct. 19. The Illini won 3-2.

Illinois head coach Chris Tamas talks to his team during the match against Michigan at Huff Hall on Oct. 19. The Illini won 3-2.

Austin Yattoni

Illinois head coach Chris Tamas talks to his team during the match against Michigan at Huff Hall on Oct. 19. The Illini won 3-2.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois head coach Chris Tamas talks to his team during the match against Michigan at Huff Hall on Oct. 19. The Illini won 3-2.


As the Illini head to Minneapolis for the Final Four for the first time since 2011, the program enters territory unfamiliar to every member of the team. For perspective, the last time the Illini made it to the national semifinals, the oldest members of the current team, seniors Jordyn Poulter, Ali Bastianelli and Blayke Hranicka, were all starting their freshman year of high school.

The Illini are in uncharted territory, but the man at the helm has navigated the treacherous waters of postseason play before.

While head coach Chris Tamas is only in his second season at Illinois and as a Division I head coach overall, leading college athletes into the heart of the postseason is not new to him. Most notably, he served as assistant coach at the University of Nebraska from 2014 to 2016 under renowned head coach John Cook. The duo helped coach Nebraska to a championship in 2015.

Tamas will find himself on the opposite side of the court from his mentor on Thursday, as Illinois faces off against Nebraska. But for Tamas, the familiarity is almost a non-factor.

“(It’s) another match,” Tamas said. “Obviously, I still know everyone there, I coached about half their players, a quarter of their players. They’re good people, but that doesn’t matter to me. We’re still competitors, and they know that we’ll compete.”

Tamas won’t be the only member of the Illinois coaching staff buckling down on Thursday. Meeting a perennial powerhouse like Nebraska in the tournament will require all hands on deck, and the meeting will break the regular season split; Nebraska beat Illinois at Huff Hall, but Illinois later beat Nebraska on the road.

One member of Tamas’ coaching staff who will play a big role in the team’s preparation for Minneapolis is new assistant coach Alfee Reft. Reft was hired by Tamas in March of this year, but his previous experience with the USA Women’s and Men’s National teams has made him an important asset in bringing the Illini up to the next level of play. Reft admitted that his journey to Illinois was guided by Tamas, considering the pairs similar history at the national level as well as their time coaching together at the University of Minnesota.

“First and foremost, it was Chris (Tamas),” Reft said. “I’ve worked with Chris before, and he is a friend of mine and someone I respect as a professional but also as a person … Illinois has always had a long history of great volleyball in this program, so I thought there was great potential to do great things here.”

Defensively speaking, Reft has put a lot of work in with the team on the floor. Junior Caroline Welsh and sophomore libero Morgan O’Brien have given credit to coach Reft for his part in the team’s defensive success this season. While Reft has a clear focus on the physical aspect of the game, he reminds his players of another all-important aspect of competitive play: their minds.

“Mindset is just as important, we think, as training the technical aspects of the game,” Reft said. “We spend a lot of time training our craft, in terms of whether it’s hitting, it’s passing, but really, what we think it comes down to is when we get into these bigger environments, we have to have the ability to access and utilize our mind to connect what our body’s already been trained to do.”

The trip back to Minneapolis for both coaches will be a homecoming of sorts, as both individuals lived and worked with the Golden Gophers. Both Tamas and Reft spoke on the time fondly, but with a Final Four visit at the top of the agenda, it may be hard to relive some of the “good old times.”

“We would often spend time doing what we call jam session,” Reft said. “He would get on the guitar, and I would definitely hit the vocals.”

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