NORMAL — The NCAA highlighted five volleyball teams in August with the best chance for an undefeated run through the 2019 season. Illinois was included along with the likes of defending national champs Stanford, fellow 2018 national semifinalists BYU, Big 12 favorites Texas and SEC title contender Kentucky.
Kentucky lost in the opening weekend at Utah, Texas dropped a five-set slugfest to Stanford and BYU dropped a match at home to Marquette. The Cardinal fell for the first time in more than a year on Saturday in four sets to Minnesota.
Then there was Illinois, struggling perhaps the most of any of the five in the opening month of the season.
Chris Tamas said articles like the one the NCAA published were mostly “fodder” but the idea of an undefeated season was a nice one to think about. One of the first items the Illinois coach said late last month was necessary to even contemplating an undefeated run through an entire season was to stay healthy.
Illinois was behind the eight ball in that regard from the opening weekend of the season. The Illini still managed a pair of Top 25 wins against Tennessee to start the year, but a constantly shuffling lineup because of lingering and new injuries — and simply trying to find a lineup that could produce consistently — precipitated four straight losses.
That included Illinois’ first two matches in the Redbird Classic, with four-set losses to host Illinois State on Friday and Central Florida on Saturday morning.
That put the Illini in proximity to some rare territory. The last Illinois team to lose that many matches in a row was the 2016 squad that had four straight losses in nonconference play and then a longer seven-loss streak in the Big Ten en route to missing the NCAA tournament.
The Illini’s answer? A gritty, comeback five-set victory against No. 7 Marquette that ended late Saturday night in the Redbird Classic finale. Undefeated might be out the window, but it was a singular win the Illini (3-4) needed.
“Really proud of how we fought as a team,” Tamas said after the win against the Golden Eagles. “We’ve got a lot of newcomers, but we’ve also got a lot of people that have been there before. It’s about blending that mix and making sure we all come together as one team. You’re not going to win them all. Any team rarely goes undefeated over the course of the year, but it’s about improving every single step of the way.”
That was Tamas’ focus when he got the Illinois job in February 2017, and it remains his focus now. He wasn’t counting losses when he downplayed his team’s chances at an undefeated season in August, but he was realistic. Even if the last unbeaten team in NCAA history did come out of the Big Ten — back-to-back perfect seasons for Penn State in 2008 and 2009 — Illinois’ nonconference slate was a challenging one, and the Big Ten is the best, most competitive conference in the country.
“I just think there’s so many talented teams out there,” Tamas said. “We really want to be playing our best volleyball at the end of the year. I think I said that when we first came in back in 2017 and they’d just come off not making the tournament. Their goal was to make the tournament. I said, ‘OK, well if your goal is to make the tournament, that’s great, but why not get to a position where we do some damage?’
“Again, we only do that one day at a time. I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but that’s really what it is. You want to put yourself in a position to do that, and you have to be playing your best volleyball at the end of the year.”
Tamas doesn’t look at the win against Marquette as a cure all for his team, but most everything about that victory was better than the four losses that preceded it. Better offensive balance. Better passing. Better results from a still aggressive serving strategy.
“It’s nice to see it come together,” Tamas said. “That doesn’t mean that it’s here. We’ve still got work to do and we still have to make sure that we’re in a position that we learn from this and we keep moving forward.”