CHAMPAIGN — Chris Tamas is spending this time like most of his Illinois volleyball players.
Waiting on the world to change.
Waiting on the number of positive coronavirus cases to decline in the United States. Waiting to see if his Illini volleyball program will have a season or not in 2020.
“At this point, everyone’s in good spirits,” said Tamas, in his fourth season in charge at Illinois. “They know we’ve got just to wait for the call of whether we’re going or not.”
Illinois players returned to campus in late June to begin voluntary strength and conditioning workouts, almost two weeks before the Big Ten announced on July 9 it would only hold conference events for fall sports teams.
Tamas understands the reason behind that move.
“I wasn’t surprised that they made that call just because I know all the teams in the conference have somewhat similar protocol for testing, and I know they can control the travel a little bit more that way,” Tamas said. “I think we were supposed to go to Colorado this season, and you’ve got three teams flying in from different states on commercial flights. Once you looked at it all, it made sense. We’re trying to operate in our own semi-bubble, if you will.
“You like to have that preconference for warmup games and there’s good competition, too. We’ll just have to jump in and play when we’re supposed to.”
The Big Ten sent seven teams to the NCAA tournament last year, the most by any conference, with Illinois making its third straight trip. Playing a schedule comprised against only conference foes isn’t ideal, but one Tamas would rather have as opposed to the alternative of possibly canceling the season.
“I feel like I’ve heard about every scenario out there,” Tamas said. “It came to a point about halfway through this whole thing where we’re just kind of spinning our wheels trying to think of everything out there. I know it’s just more along the lines of making sure we can do this from a health and safety standpoint. Once that gets figured out and they give us the call, I know we’re going to figure out the best scheduling process possible that we can do for the conference.”
What the schedule will look like isn’t known yet. Making sure health is at the forefront of a schedule is of utmost importance, according to Tamas.
“What’s maybe holding us back from making a couple of these decisions is trying to figure out what’s best medically,” he said. “Is it best to bring in four teams to one site and try to control travel or is it best to say, maybe one team comes here and we’ll play a few matches back-to-back against the same team? That’s kind of what we’re looking at. At the NCAA level, they’ve been talking about bringing in more teams, if the fall championships happen, to one site so teams didn’t have to travel quite as far. I can definitely see that as a viable model if, medically, that makes sense.”
Having no fans in attendance at Huff Hall is another aspect Tamas and his players will have to adapt to this upcoming season — if there is one.
Illinois averaged 3,000 fans last season at the venerable venue situated along Fourth Street in Champaign, ranking eighth in the country. Six of the top-10 teams in attendance last season called the Big Ten their home conference.
“Obviously, we’d want to have them, that’s for sure,” Tamas said. “That’s one of the big factors we have with a home-court advantage. The Huff heat, with everyone kind of on top of you, is probably a great environment for a virus, so I totally understand the decision. It’ll be a little bit weird, but at this point, we’d take a season however we can get it.”
Typically at this juncture on the calendar, Illinois would be hosting camps, giving Tamas and his staff an opportunity to work a little bit with their returning players. Illinois missed out on its normal spring season of practices and scrimmages when the early days of the pandemic canceled those plans.
So it’s been quite some time since Tamas and his staff were actually able to, you know, coach volleyball skills with their team.
“We have no contact,” Tamas said. “I’ve seen one or two around town, but most of it has been through phone calls and Zoom meetings. Last week, they received protocol to start playing with a ball, so they’ve been having open gyms. They’re used to doing their practices on their own. The reports I’ve got have said they’re doing good. We would like to have more contact with them, for sure. They’re great players, great people, and we miss working with them.”
Tamas probably also misses the recruiting component of his job. He and his staff, just like every other college coaching staff in the country, hasn’t had a chance to go off-campus and recruit since the pandemic started.
The NCAA has a dead period through Aug. 31 right now in regards to recruiting, and Tamas said he thinks that date will be extended as well.
“It’s just made us become a little more creative about how we recruit during this time,” Tamas said. “We had gotten a chance to look at the people we need to in the 2022 class that would be incoming juniors in high school. It’s been a lot of conversations. We’ve been putting together a virtual visit, so to speak, and we had a lot of fun doing that. We’re just waiting for word to see if the dead period extends, which we think it will, and if that does, then we’re ready to go with some virtual visits and hopefully get some kids to start committing here.”