A year ago, they sat together on the bench at Nebraska, all the way to the final match of the season.
A year later, they’re national coach-of-the-year candidates readying their respective teams for the NCAA Tournament.
Dani Busboom Kelly, who won NCAA titles both as a player and an assistant coach at Nebraska, took over when Anne Kordes resigned from Louisville, where she had previously been an assistant.
Chris Tamas, the former player at Pacific who has a varied resume as an assistant coach, took over at Illinois after Kevin Hambly left for Stanford.
All Busboom Kelly did was take the Cardinals to a share of the ACC title with Pittsburgh, finishing the regular season 24-6 overall, 18-2 in the league.
“I had seen those recruits when they were younger, I’ve been keeping up with Louisville volleyball because I felt like I was invested in the program after being here for one year as an assistant,” Busboom Kelly said. “I felt like we could be great. It’s funny, because at the beginning of my time here I thought we could win the conference.”
“About halfway through I thought we should lower those goals and make mini-goals, and here we are. We won it, so it’s pretty crazy.”
While neither team is ranked, Louisville is No. 21 in the NCAA RPI and Illinois is No. 26.
Louisville plays Northern Iowa at Minnesota on Friday, with the winner playing the winner of Minnesota vs. North Dakota.
Illinois, which swept Louisville in early September, goes to Seattle to play Hawai’i and another first-year coach in Robyn Ah Mow-Santos in the first round. The winner gets the winner of host Washington vs. LIU Brooklyn.
Louisville was a notch behind in the ACC for much of the season as Pittsburgh and NC State battled it out at the top. But then the Cardinals surged, winning their last 11 matches.
“We fought through a lot of pressure this year,” Busboom Kelly said.
The Cardinals can put the pressure on you in a lot of ways. Sophomore outside Melanie McHenry leads with 400 kills and averages 3.60 per set. She’s got 22 aces and is good for .59 blocks per set.
“She can take a swing and bury it. She’s fearless and will fight to the end,” Busboom Kelly said. “She uses the whole court. She combines her volleyball IQ with her physicality.”
Senior Tess Clark, primarily a right side, has 302 kills and averages 2.75 per set and also .53 blocks.
“And Tess is still learning,” Busboom Kelly said.
Sophomore outside Amanda Green averages 2.44 kills and junior middle Jasmine Bennett 2.05. Senior middle Maggie DeJong — “the hardest worker I’ve ever been around,” Busboom Kelly said — has 123 blocks, 15 solo.
Junior setter Wilma Rivera, a transfer after her freshman year at Penn State who played sparingly last year, averages 10.66 assists and .42 blocks.
“I think she has a chip on her shoulder, she’s a great teammate and leader, and she’s steady,” Busboom Kelly said. “I don’t know what makes her so good. She has really learned how to run an offense this year and she’s totally bought in. You can’t target just one thing that makes her good, it’s a combination of her personality and the way she plays.”
Louisville missed last year’s NCAA Tournament.
“The core of this team, the seniors, they won the ACC two years ago,” Busboom Kelly said. “So they know what that’s like. We’ve completed a huge hurdle, winning the ACC, and now that the pressure from that is behind us, we can focus on the third season.
“I think we’re going to play like we have nothing to lose with no expectations. I’m not worried how our team is going to handle it.”
Tamas took the Illini to a 21-10 record, and one of the surprises in the league at 12-8 in the Big Ten. Like Busboom Kelly at Louisville, he knew exactly what he was getting at Illinois.
“I scouted Illinois for two years,” he said. “We literally followed them last year at Nebraska, so I got to see every single match they played last year.”
He inherited one of the best setters in the game in junior Jordyn Poulter, who not only only averages 10.83 assists, but has 95 kills while hitting .371, has 15 aces, averages 2.43 digs and has 107 blocks, seven solo, just shy of one block per match.
“Jordyn’s really good. I think she’s one of, if not the best setter in the country,” Tamas said. “I’m not just saying that because she’s my setter. I really think she’s up there.”
Jacqueline Quade has had a tremendous season. She leads in kills with 382, 3.38 per set, has 18 aces, averages 1.3 digs and .56 blocks.
“Our big deal was to get her consistent,” Tamas said. “These last three weeks or so she’s really shown that consistency. She’s choosing her shots correctly, which is probably the hardest thing to do as an outside hitter.”
She’s part of a balanced attack that includes sophomore outside Beth Prince (345 kills, 3.11 per set), junior middle Ali Bastianelli (282 kills, 2.56 per set) and freshman opposite Megan Cooney (198 kills, 1.9 per set).
In the grinder that is the Big Ten season, Illinois finished sixth, winning its last three matches to end the season. That included an upset of Minnesota.
“The girls put in a lot of work this season. Whether we get recognized or not, that’s what this time of year is all about,” Tamas said. “We’re happy we made the tournament. It was never really our goal. It’s everyone’s goal in the back of their minds, but we never really mentioned it during the year, it was always just one game at a time.”
Tamas said when he asked the players before the season what their goals were, “their answer was to be the best weightlifting team, have a good GPA and beat Gonzaga (in the season opener, which Illinois did in three).”
Last year, Illinois was left out of the NCAA Tournament.
“The team was hungry,” Tamas said. “I know that’s been a big driving force for them from day one. They really have put in the work and it has been really fun. It’s been a good learning experience for everyone and I’m happy to have been a part of it.”
Their old boss, by the way, John Cook at Nebraska, has had another outstanding season, and another of his former assistants, Kentucky’s Craig Skinner, got his Wildcats into the tournament as the No. 4 seed.
“I’ve been in contact with Dani all season,” Tamas said. “And I’ve been in contact with John and he’s proud of us, too. We learned a lot from John.”