New start for Tamas, Illini

New start for Tamas, Illini

CHAMPAIGN — Chris Tamas' time as an assistant coach at Minnesota and Nebraska gave him a firsthand look at the Illinois volleyball team as he scouted against the Illini.

Hired away from the Cornhuskers in February to replace Stanford-bound Kevin Hambly, Tamas took the job already knowing some areas he could look to improve. Through this week's start of practice Tamas' main focus is getting his nine freshmen up to speed with what the returnees worked on in the spring.

"They asked me when I got here, 'How did you win a championship at Nebraska?' " Tamas said during an appearance on Friday's "Morning Show," on WDWS 1400-AM.

"I said, 'We were an exceptional first contact team' meaning we kept the ball off the floor and passed really well. We work a lot on it. With the mix of people we have, it's going to take a little bit of time to get there, but they're working really hard to learn what we're teaching them."

Illinois' back row is one of the open competitions as practice began leading into Illinois' season opener on Aug. 25 against Gonzaga at the Montana State Bobcat Classic in Bozeman, Mont. The Illini's first six matches are on the road until they host Hambly and Stanford, the defending national champion, on Sept. 8 at Huff Hall as part of the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge.

Brandi Donnelly, the lone senior on the team, returns as a three-year starter at libero after earning AVCA honorable mention All-American honors last season and playing for one of USA Volleyball's collegiate national teams this summer. Sophomores Caroline Welsh and Annika Gereau are also back, and they're joined by freshmen Morgan O'Brien (a two-time News-Gazette First Team All-State selection out of Libertyville), Lexi Smith and Emmaline Walters.

Two other positions in open competition through the start of practice are at opposite hitter and middle blocker. Redshirt sophomore Beth Prince and freshmen Megan Cooney and Marijke Van Dyke are competing for the former, while junior Blayke Hranicka and freshman Tyanna Omazic are vying for the latter behind returning NCAA blocks leader Ali Bastianelli.

"From the team perspective, just the focus that they're showing is pretty nice to see," Tamas said. "You want someone that comes in, works hard, willing to improve (and) willing to make changes. I've got a team full of those. The whole team across the board is really open to learning, and they work really hard."