Top Illini of Title IX: No. 7 Mary Eggers Tendler

Editor’s note: June 23 marks the 40-year anniversary of the passing of Title IX, a resolution that sought to stop gender discrimination in educational activities; athletics was one of those programs most affected. In honor of the 40-year anniversary, The Daily Illini is recognizing the athletes that have forwarded female athletics in the wake of Title IX’s passing. The Daily Illini summer staff sat down and sifted through a list of more than 30 nominees to name and order the top 9 female athletes of the past 40 years in terms of cultivating excellence for women’s sports at Illinois. Check out next week’s issue for Nos. 6-4.

It had been 23 years since Mary Eggers Tendler stepped on the Illinois volleyball court at Kenney Gym in front of hundreds of fans.

But when the 1988 Honda Player of the Year attended the 2011 NCAA Final Four in San Antonio to see her alma mater play in its first Final Four since she wore the orange and blue, she saw some familiar faces.

“I was kind of amazed that some of the fans were the same fans back from the ‘80s,” Tendler said with a laugh. “That was really cool to see.”

It was those faces that stood out as the fan base during Tendler’s four-year career that dated back to her freshman year in 1985, when she won Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

Tendler’s impact on Illinois volleyball will remain in record books forever, where she goes by Mary Eggers. Current Illinois volleyball coach Kevin Hambly said she is the No. 1 player in Illinois volleyball history.

“Her numbers are unbelievable. … I mean, she did everything,” he said.

Tendler’s numbers do speak for themselves. In the Illinois career record book, she is second in kills, first in attack percentage, first in aces and second in total blocks. She is tied for the most matches played at 151 and she still holds the first, second and third spot for best season attacking percentage: her best coming at .455 in her sophomore season.

What Tendler brought as a player was a new level of competitiveness to a rising program, said Mike Hebert, her head coach during her time at Illinois.

“I think most everybody at the time felt that she was our best player,” Hebert said. “Mary became the signature player in our program.”

Tendler began starting volleyball as a request from her coach during eighth grade. She was asked to try out for the team, and being too shy to say no, she said yes. From there she began to rapidly improve and started to love the sport. By the time recruiting began, Hebert said she was on everybody’s list. She had offers from schools like Illinois State, Northwestern and Western Michigan, all of which were in the top 20 in 1984. Illinois was not ranked.

“I just really liked what Illinois had to offer and liked the idea that Illinois was kind of a team on the rise and was going to be really good,” Tendler said. “They were putting more funding and had a lot more interest in the sport of volleyball there. So I thought a lot of good things were going to happen.”

During her four years, Illinois made it to its first NCAA tournament in 1985, and its first Final Four appearance in 1987; they repeated in 1988.

“What her group did,” Hambly said, “was put us on the map. They made what we were able to do last year possible.”

In her four years, the Illini only lost three Big Ten games and 17 games in total. Tendler was a three-time First-Team All-American and a four-time First-Team All-Big Ten. Hebert said through his 13 years of coaching, no team could live up to the years that Tendler was on the team.

“After she graduated, we weren’t quite as good, to be honest with you,” Hebert said. “With Mary and Nancy Brookhart, we had the best middle-hitter tandem in the country.”

For Tendler, the first Final Four appearance was her favorite memory playing at Illinois and one she said she would never forget. She credits those who pushed Title IX forward for giving her a chance to play college volleyball.

While attending a luncheon for a national women in sports day, Tendler said she heard some older women talk about their experiences with volleyball. She said she had no idea of what they had to go through, making her appreciate her playing days even further.

“I mean, they were talking about having play dates where they couldn’t keep score, and they had to have cookies and juice after games, and this was in college,” Tendler said. “So there wasn’t a winner or a loser and I don’t think I would have fared very well with that atmosphere, or would have wanted to stay with it. There are so many reasons to not commit to a sport and you have to make it worthwhile.”

Now, Tendler gets to give back the experience she had at Illinois to others. She has been the head volleyball coach at Elon University for nine seasons. She said the best thing now is she is able to give $150,000 scholarship to women to get an education and play volleyball.

“There’s so much more interest in volleyball then there was back then,” Tendler said. “You’re seeing people start playing at a younger age. It used to be a West Coast thing, but now it’s all over the country. There’s so many opportunities now for female volleyball players to play in college.”

The ability to give back is one Tendler had not expected. She said she never knew she wanted to coach, similar to how she didn’t know she wanted to play volleyball. She was the assistant coach at Illinois State, Drake and James Madison before becoming head coach at Elon.

Before coaching, she played on the U.S. National Team after graduating from Illinois and before ending her playing career, she was a professional in Europe for two years.

Tendler said it has all come full circle as teammates she played with now have daughters starting the recruiting process.

“Sometimes when I’m out recruiting, I don’t even know that my teammates are there and I get a call or a text,” Tendler said. “It makes me feel kind of old.”

And even if Tendler has not worn an Illinois jersey in 23 years, seeing fans in San Antonio brought back memories of Illinois, a place she has not revisited in about 15 years.

But, as evidenced by her winning the Honda Player of the Year award, it is a place where she made an indelible mark as a pioneer for Illinois volleyball.