College volleyball is a big sport, played by (mostly) big people, making its annual appearance on its biggest stage at this week’s Final Four. But when Illinois, Nebraska, Brigham Young and Stanford gathered Wednesday at Target Center, it seemed like an awfully small universe.
Illini coach Chris Tamas used to be an assistant under John Cook at Nebraska. Tamas replaced Kevin Hambly, who left the Illini to become head coach at Stanford. Hambly’s cousin used to date the twin sister of BYU coach Heather Olmstead, who got help from Cook and Hambly — a former BYU player — as she was honing her coaching chops.
“There’s a camaraderie in our community,” Olmstead said. “A lot of people are just friends.”
Those relationships will be put on hold in Thursday night’s NCAA semifinals, when Stanford plays BYU and Nebraska faces Illinois. The winners play for the national championship Saturday in an event that will be without a local favorite, following the second-seeded Gophers’ loss to Oregon in last week’s regional semifinal.
Bereft Gophers fans looking for a new rooting interest will have plenty to choose from. The top-seeded Cardinal is pursuing its eighth national title, which would surpass Penn State for the most ever. Fourth-seeded BYU, which handed Stanford its only loss of the season, is trying to make Olmstead the first woman to coach a team to the Division I volleyball championship.
Big Ten loyalists can go with the seventh-seeded Cornhuskers, the defending champs, or No. 3 seed Illinois, which last reached the Final Four in 2011. There are stellar individuals to cheer, too, such as Stanford’s 6-6 phenom Kathryn Plummer, Nebraska’s four-year force Mikaela Foecke and BYU heavy hitter Roni Jones-Perry.
With competition still a day away, Hambly wasn’t taking sides Wednesday. Instead, he celebrated the collegial nature of his sport at a Final Four where the foes are friends.
“It’s nice to see [Illinois] here. I’m excited for them,” Hambly said. “I’m a huge fan of Heather. To see [BYU] back, it’s good for my heart. I still love that place.
“I want to congratulate all the teams that made it here. I think it’s going to be great volleyball.”
The ties among the Final Four participants extend to Minnesota. One of Hambly’s teammates at BYU was Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon, and Tamas was a Gophers assistant from 2011-12, under interim coach Laura Bush and McCutcheon. Illini assistant Alfee Reft also was a Gophers assistant coach from 2010-12.
Hambly led Illinois to the 2011 Final Four, its first in 23 years, and recruited all but one of the players who have carried the Illini to Thursday’s national semifinals. He left Illinois following the 2016 season to take over the Cardinal, compiling a 62-5 record and two Final Four appearances in two seasons.
Stanford returns to the NCAA semifinals on a program-record 30-match win streak, with the only blemish on its record a 3-2 loss at BYU on Aug. 31. The players Hambly coached for three semesters at Illinois kept moving forward under Tamas. He arrived on campus in February 2017, coached the team to the Sweet Sixteen last season and got the Illini back to the Final Four in short order.
“When Chris came in, we didn’t even have enough people in the gym to make up a full six-on-six,” said Illinois senior Jordyn Poulter, the co-Big Ten setter of the year. “We’ve come into the gym every day with the expectation that we were there to get better. It’s put us in this position.”
On Thursday, Tamas will make his first Final Four appearance as a head coach, facing one of his mentors. He was part of Cook’s staff at Nebraska for four seasons, including the 2015 run to an NCAA championship.
The Huskers have improved throughout the season, sweeping their past seven matches — including four in the NCAA tournament. Cook said he hoped Tamas would stay at Nebraska a little longer, but when the offer came from Illinois, he knew his assistant had to take it. Cook now will try to beat a former pupil who went 1-1 against him in the regular season.
“[Illinois] reminds me a lot of us,” Cook said. “They’re playing really well. I think it’s going to come down to which team can win the big points at the end of games, take the big swings, make the big plays.”
Olmstead, making her first Final Four appearance, recalled how Cook and Hambly both invited her to spend three days in their gyms to observe training methods. That’s part of what she called the “growth mind-set” of volleyball, where coaches are eager to share knowledge.
Except for the next three days, when it’s every team for itself.
“We want to help each other out,” she said. “But when you get on the court and face each other, it’s ‘may the best team win.’ ”