Almost a month ago, former volleyball stars Illini Jordyn poulter, Michelle bartsch–Hackley and Erin Vertu made the history of the world. Sweeping through Brazil on the final day of the Tokyo Olympics, the three Illinis helped the U.S. team win their first-ever gold in women’s volleyball.
Friday night, the three Olympians will return to Huff Hall ahead of the Illinois volleyball home opener. The Head Coach Chris Tamas, who has a personal relationship with the three Illini alumni, is delighted that the team and community are honoring Poulter, Bartsch-Hackley and Virtue.
“A lot of people in this area care about volleyball and care about them and they got to see their course,” Tamas said. They know they’ve all played here, so I think there’s just a lot of pride in what these three have done for American volleyball. We know it’s about the team and everything, but it’s always cool when you go out and do something right and we have three of us doing something right. So that was really cool to see. “
The former Illini played a decisive role in the Olympic race. Virtue, a 2003 All-Big Ten passer, works as an assistant coach for Team USA as offensive coordinator and passer coach. Poulter, who led the 2018 Illini to a Final Four in an All-American season, has been the US team’s starting passer for most of the Olympics. And Bartsch-Hackley, an All-American hitter in 2011 while helping the Illini to a NCAA national runner-up spot, dominated in Tokyo as the Olympics top outside hitter.
Poulter and Bartsch-Hackley not only made history with Team USA, but they also became the first female Illini athletes to win a gold medal.
“I think the best thing about the band we chose is the way they played together,” Virtue said. “Certainly Michelle and Jordyn Poulter had a huge impact on that. And obviously we’re not making any decisions with where they played or anything like that, but the fact that there were two athletes, Illini and a coach Illini, it was really special to see him at the end. I was really proud of them. “
While none of the three had played together in Illinois, they all developed a close relationship long before the 2020 Olympic team reunited.
Virtue first met Poulter as a high school student while coaching the U20 national team in which Poulter played. Bartsch-Hackley and Virtue were connected via Illinois as they shared a similar coaching team. But the relationship between Poulter and Bartsch-Hackley has had the most history as Bartsch-Hackley remembers a 12-year-old Poulter going to volleyball camps in Illinois.
This long-standing connection was noticeable throughout the gold medal race as the chemistry on the pitch between Poulter and Bartsch-Hackley fueled a strong attack.
“It’s really cool. Having someone near you, being away from home, it’s great,” said Bartsch-Hackley. “And I love Poulter. So it was just a good time and for both of us, playing and starting was also really special. We had a huge impact on the team, I think, just with the two of us on the pitch. “
While Virtue, Poulter, and Bartsch-Hackley all had very different experiences as Illinois volleyball players, they all found success after college.
All three, along with Tamas, believe that Champaign’s volleyball program attracts not only good players, but also good people. And, the community around them is full of people who care about the players and the team, making it easy to have something to play for.
Virtue experienced this with former Illini coach Kevin Hambly, who now coaches at Stanford, and former assistant coach Jen Flynn Oldenburg, who is the current Ohio State head coach.
“They helped fuel the flame of athletes who wanted to be good after college,” Virtue said. “And I think that in choosing a location if you’re a young high school player, who has the ambition to be an Olympian, it’s a really important piece that the endgame isn’t just about reaching the Final Four and to be really good at college, but to be good beyond that. It takes special people to know what that is like and how to help you get there. “
Bartsch-Hackley, who was also coached by Hambly and Oldenburg, echoed the same sentiments. She also feels that the culture she saw in Illinois mirrored that of the United States team, which made it easier for her and, later, Poulter bonded with the group.
“I think Illinois in general does a great job of recruiting great people,” Bartsch-Hackley said. “And that’s also kind of what the national team is like. You can be a star player and you can be amazing, but if you don’t care about the people around you then it’s hard for you to stay. And I think with my own experience we’ve worked a lot on our culture and we just care about others and learn the effect you have on people and just learn to maintain that by playing high level volleyball, I think. that Illinois does a great job of doing this. “
Tamas continued this tradition of bringing good people to the program, according to Poulter, who also learned a lot about playing at the top level from Tamas, his wife Jen and Illini’s former assistant Alfee Reft.
While all three Olympians are excited to watch the 2021 volleyball squad, they are also eager to feel nostalgia for Huff Hall, attending Saturday’s soccer game, and seeing old friends as the team from the Illinois 2011 will also be honored this weekend.
“Seeing friends, coaches, family, former teammates; cheering on the Illinis, walking around campus, planning my first football game, going to the bars on Green Street, eating at The Bread Co. and just celebrating the 2011 team and our gold medal, ”Poulter said on this that she’s looking forward to this weekend. “Needless to say, I’m extremely excited.”