Illini volleyball coach sets sights on beating his old boss

Updated Mar. 4, 2020 1:27 p.m. ET

There will be a sense of the familiar when defending national champion Nebraska and Illinois meet in the NCAA volleyball semifinals in Minneapolis on Thursday night.

John Cook has coached the Cornhuskers (28-6) to their fourth straight final four, where they will try to take the next step toward a third championship in four years and sixth overall. Chris Tamas has led the Illini (32-3) to the semifinals in his second year after serving as an assistant to Cook in the 2015-16 seasons.

"Really gracious in all of his time with me, what I've learned underneath him," Tamas said Wednesday. "But, you know, now it's time to beat him."

No. 1 seed Stanford (32-1) plays No. 4 BYU (31-1) in the other semifinal at Target Center. The winners meet in the championship match Saturday night.

Nebraska, the lowest remaining seed at No. 7, and No. 3 Illinois split their two meetings in Big Ten play. The Huskers have won 12 straight since losing to the Illini in Lincoln on Oct. 27. All three of Illinois' losses came in a four-match stretch over two weeks. The Illini have won 17 in a row since getting swept by Big Ten champion Minnesota on Oct. 12.

Tamas was Cook's defensive coordinator and middle blockers coach before Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman sought him out for an interview in February 2017. Initial contact to hiring took 48 hours.

"I wanted to keep him for another year or two," Cook said, "but I've been in this long enough to know that a job like Illinois doesn't come open all the time, that if he had a shot to get it, he had to go."


The focal point of Illinois' defensive plan will be keeping outside hitter Mikaela Foecke under control. The senior was the NCAA Championship Most Outstanding Player in 2015 and 2017.

"I already texted her and told her I was going to stop her," Tamas said to laughter. "She's a great player. Obviously, really great on this stage."


Stanford's only loss was a five-set match against BYU in Provo, Utah, in August. The Cougars had their bid for a perfect season end Nov. 20 when they were upset by Loyola Marymount in five sets. Stanford is in the semifinals for the third straight year and 22nd overall, most in the nation, and going for its eighth national championship and second in three years. BYU is in the national semifinals for the third time and looking for its first title.


Stanford coach Kevin Hambly is the man Tamas replaced at Illinois in 2017, and he recruited most of the Illini team that's in Minneapolis.

"I thought Chris has done a great job of maximizing their potential, getting the most out of those seniors especially," Hambly said. "You hope it would get there. It's nice to see them here. I'm excited for them."


BYU twins Lyndie Haddock-Eppich and Lacy Haddock get to experience the final four just like older sister Tambre Nobles did four years ago. Lyndie is the Cougars' star setter and Lacy is a backup outside hitter. They're seniors from Longmont, Colorado. Tambre was an outside hitter on the team that lost to Penn State in the 2014 final in Oklahoma City.


Nebraska will be the closest thing to the home team. The Huskers have sold out an NCAA-record 253 consecutive regular-season matches at home and have a loyal road following.

"Yeah, the fans have completely exceeded our expectations," libero Kenzie Maloney said. "Coming in as a freshman, I had an idea of what it would be like. We go out in public, people recognize you. They want pictures. It's really cool to know a lot of these little girls idolize you."

Foecke added, "Husker fans love Nebraska volleyball. They kind of live and die with us. I think that's something really special. A lot of teams don't have that. We're so lucky to have that."


The American Volleyball Coaches Association announced its All-America teams.

First-team selections: Sherridan Atkinson, Purdue; Foecke, Lauren Stivrins, Nebraska; Jenna Gray, Morgan Hentz, Kathryn Plummer, Stanford; Haddock-Eppich, Roni Jones-Perry, BYU; Jordyn Poulter, Jacqueline Quade, Illinois; Dana Rettke, Wisconsin; Stephanie Samedy, Samantha Seliger-Swenson, Minnesota; Kendall White, Penn State.