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Head coach Chris Tamas laughs while answering a question during a press conference at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018.

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Why he’s our top coach of the year:

Just two seasons into his tenure with the Illini volleyball program, Tamas has a 55-15 record and has reached consecutive NCAA tournaments. That includes the fourth Final Four appearance in program history this past season.

In his words

We asked Illinois volleyball coach Chris Tamas five questions about the season and his team's unforgettable Final Four run:

What is your most indelible memory of the Final Four run?

I think it was just the group involved that year. After 2017, we had four transfer and brought in some new people and a new coach with Alfee (Reft). I think the group as a whole was a real joy to work with. Whenever you have really good years it doesn’t always go that way. The memory of the group and my end-of-the-year speech to the booster club and the team was a reflection of that. It was the times we had together throughout the season.

Was there a tipping point where you felt like the Final Four was a possibility?

In general, I think winning is pretty fragile. We had a tough home loss against Nebraska and then another one the following week against Wisconsin. Then we went on the road and played Minnesota and lost a close three-setter. Then we played Wisconsin that following night and were tied at one set apiece and ran out of substitutions in the third set and went through a whole front row rotation with Caroline Welsh in the front row — who’s not a front row player by any means — but pulled off that set and the match and didn’t lose again until the Final Four. After that win, the whole group, that was like their release point and they played really freely after that. I wouldn’t say I thought we were a Final Four team right at that moment, but I felt we had turned the corner with our mentality in terms of how we approached everything.

Did wins against Wisconsin, Nebraska and Penn State change the perception of Illinois in the Big Ten?

Whenever you’re beating teams that are perennially in the top 10 and even just between (Nebraska and Penn State) have won (nine titles in the past 13 years) yoy’re putting yourself on the mark of not only being competitive with those teams but beating those teams. We want to make sure we’re a team that, any given night, you’re going to have to bring your best to beat us. I think we proved that over the course of the year last year.

What stands out to you about your first two seasons as coach?

Overall just the support of Illinois volleyball is alive and well and the support of Illinois athletics in general. People are hungry for all the sports to do well. The support over the last couple months where Huff was packed, it was literally electric. ... Huff was just going and people were excited about what we were doing, and we were turning people away at the door over Thanksgiving break because it was hard to get a ticket. It’s what we want to recruit to and what we want our players to play with, and we want to put out a competitive team for our fans to see. Everyone is supportive of Illinois athletics, and we’ll do our best to keep having these runs.

Does a Final Four season change things going forward?

It will be addressed when we first start the season, but I think how we got to the point last season was we took everything one day at a time — one match at a time. It doesn’t do yourself any good to get too far ahead of yourselves. ... You have to prepare well to just be in the mix in the top half of the conference. Every single school in our conference is going to be really good again. I don’t look at it like, “OK, we made the Final Four and we’re going undefeated the next year."

Leaders of Illini Nation

A look at the previous Coach of the Year recipients:

YEAR COACH SPORT

2018 Justin Spring Men’s gymnastics

2017 Mike Small Men’s golf

2016 Mike Small Men’s golf

2015 Dan Hartleb Baseball

2014 Mike Small Men’s golf

2013 Mike Small Men’s golf

2012 Justin Spring Men’s gymnastics

2011 Justin Spring Men’s gymnastics

2010 Terri Sullivan Softball

2009 Mike Small Men’s golf

2008 Ron Zook Football

2007 Brad Dancer Men’s tennis

2006 Karen Harvey Women’s cross-country

2005 Bruce Weber Men’s basketball

2004 Bruce Weber Men’s basketball

2003 Craig Tiley Men’s tennis

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).