Well, another year has passed, this time marking the end of a decade. The inexorable march of time keeps going, and as usual Internet people everywhere are taking the time to rank stuff that happened.
Since this is an Illini blog, it makes sense for us to do this about the Illini. Seeing as this is the end of a decade, it makes sense to do one of these about the past 10 years. Is it a bit lazy and contrived? Maybe, but hey, you clicked on it.
But what isn’t lazy or contrived is doing one of these about the sports you only kinda hear about every so often, become deeply invested in when the Illini are good at it, and then just kinda forget about for the rest of the year.
So here are the top 10 non-revenue athletes of the 2010s.
A few caveats before we begin:
- First, I only selected one per sport because otherwise I’d just be selecting a bunch of golfers and then I-Mar.
- Secondly, I’m aware that there’s going to be some massive recency bias with this, and there’s some things that numbers just can’t quantify (cough cough Jordyn Poulter cough cough). I’m open to debate.
Ling Kuhn – Swimming and Diving
The best athlete of the decade in probably the weakest sport in the Illinois athletic department, Kuhn made history by being the first Illini diver to score in three events at the Big Ten Championships and to qualify for the national championships.
She has three of the top four platform scores, the second- and third-best three-meter scores, and the second- and seventh-best one-meter scores.
Karisma Penn – Women’s Basketball
A bright spot in a decade of tumult for the women’s basketball program, Penn sits fourth in program history in career points, second in career rebounds, and second in career blocks. She was All-Big Ten three times, including a First-Team selection in 2012-13. That same year she was the fifth player in Illini women’s basketball history to be named honorable mention All-American.
Bing Singhsumalee – Women’s Golf
A recent cornerstone for a program on the rise, Singhsumalee holds the program record for career stroke average. She is part of a three-way tie for the best single round in program history, and has three of top-ten seasons in terms of average strokes.
Singhsumalee claimed three All-Big Ten awards, including a First-Team honor in 2017-18 and helped Illini women’s golf to their only appearance in the NCAA Championships in 2018-19.
Melissa Kopinski – Women’s Tennis
Kopinski is one of four All-Americans in Illini women’s tennis history. She was all-conference for three years, twice on the first team. She sits third in program history in doubles victories, an impressive feat considering the decrease in matches played in recent years.
CJ Maestas – Men’s Gymnastics
Another sport where it’s extremely difficult to choose the best of the decade, I’ll pick Maestas due to his versatility. He won two national titles: his first in 2012 on Still Rings and his second in 2015 on the High Bar. He garnered 10 All-American honors, including three in the All-Around.
He also snagged two Big Ten titles to his name: the first in 2012 in the All-Around, and the second in 2015 in the Floor Exercise. He was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of, well, not just one.
10. Alina Weinstein – Women’s Gymnastics
A two-time All-American in the floor exercise, Weinstein helped the women’s gymnastics team to tie a program-best 11th-place finish at the National Championships in both 2011 and 2013. She won two regional titles in both 2012 and 2013 (all around and balance beam in 2012, then floor exercise and balance beam again in 2013).
She was All-Big Ten in ’12 and ’13 and was named the Regional gymnast of the year in 2013.
On top of all that, Weinstein took home the Big Ten Medal of Honor in 2013.
9. Nicole Evans – Softball
Evans powered Illini softball to two consecutive postseasons in 2016 and 2017. She snagged All-Big Ten Honors both years and was named a third-team All-American in 2017, her senior season. Also, in her senior season, she was named the Dike Eddleman Female Athlete of the Year.
The slugger holds program records for slugging percentage, RBI and home runs.
8. Vanessa DiBernardo – Soccer
The talented midfielder led Illinois soccer to four straight NCAA Tournaments, including a Sweet Sixteen appearance her senior season in 2013. She was named First Team All-Big Ten three times. The only exception was her senior season, when she lost playing time to national team call-ups and a knee injury. She finished her career third in school history in goals and first in assists.
Let’s focus on 2011, her sophomore season. Of course, she was All-Big Ten, but she was also named the Big Ten Midfielder of the Year. She pumped in 17 goals (for reference, the 2019 version of the Illini, a fairly potent offensive team, tallied 30 total), 10 of which were game-winners. One of those was the golden goal against Penn State in the Big Ten Championship match.
7. Bren Spillane – Baseball
I know there are points on here where I give certain athletes the nod over others because of consistency over all four years of their career, but Spillane’s insane 2018 season puts him on this list. He led the nation in OPS and slugging percentage, and easily led the conference in basically every offensive statistical category.
Since Illinois Baseball has a long and storied history, he doesn’t hold any season records for the University of Illinois, but he is the only player in that long and storied history to be named the National Player of the Year.
6. Jared Hiltzik – Men’s Tennis
This is just about as difficult as selecting the best golfer of the decade, but there’s really two major candidates: Hiltzik and Aleks Vukic. They amassed basically the same honors over their full careers. Both were All-Americans three times, and they were both all-conference all four years. They even were named the team MVP three times as well, splitting the award in 2015-16. I’ll give Hiltzik the nod just for an ever-so-slightly better freshman year: he was named to the first team All-Big Ten while Vukic was placed on the second team, and Hiltzik took the Big Ten Freshman of the Year Award as well. It’s exceptionally close.
I’ve gone back and forth on this too many times. I’ve typed this thing up for Vukic before changing my mind, and I’m certain as soon as this is published, I’ll want to go back on that decision. It’s a wonderful problem to have, I suppose.
5. Charlie Danielson – Men’s Golf
Selecting a men’s golfer as the best of the decade is an impossible task that no wrong answers but no one true answer. I’ll put my money on Danielson though. He was All-Big Ten all four years of his collegiate career and finished on some sort of All-American list all four years as well, including a First-Team honor his senior year. He finished in the top 15 at the Championships twice and was All-Midwest all four years.
The reason I’m putting him here over Pieters, Detry, and Meyers is his consistency. Danielson was stellar all four years at Illinois, and while others may have shined brighter at one point or another (like Pieters winning the individual natty), nobody was as steadily great as Danielson over their full time in Champaign-Urbana.
4. Ashley Spencer – Women’s Track & Field/Cross Country
Back-to-back National Outdoor Championships in the 400m? Yeah, that’ll get you on this list. The short-to-middle-distance runner took her titles in 2012 and 2013 and helped the women’s team to a Big Ten indoor title in 2013.
She picked up 5 All-American honors and 12 Big Ten event titles along the way. Illini women’s track and field has only won 5 Big Ten event titles since she graduated.
3. Jordyn Poulter – Volleyball
The unquestioned leader of the 2018 Final Four team, Poulter was All-Big Ten for three of her four years, and All-Big Ten Freshman the other. She sits third in Illini history in assists and was All-American her senior year.
There’s not a great objective metric for measuring a setter’s worth since it generally comes from elevating the play of those around them, but here’s a good example: In her junior season, Jacqueline Quade garnered first-team All-American honors while being fed by Poulter’s. The following season, Quade only was an honorable mention All-American. Granted, there’s a myriad of reasons as to why that happened, but not having Poulter feed her is a giant one.
2. Andrew Riley – Men’s Track & Field/Cross Country
If you’re an All-American Illini, you’re probably going to make this list. If you win multiple national titles, you’re definitely making this list. Three of Riley’s four years happened to be in the 2010s, and the sprinter got the decade off to a bang. Riley won the 110m hurdles twice at the NCAA Outdoor Championships (2010 and 2012), and in 2012 he completed the double, winning the 100m dash as well.
I could go through all his honors, such as his 12 All-American honors, but his four national titles (he also won the 60m hurdles at the 2011 indoor championships, no big deal) are enough for second place on this list.
1. Isaiah Martinez – Wrestling
Being a four-time All-American will put you on an all-decade list pretty easily. Being a four-time Big Ten champ put you near the top. Winning two national titles before moving up a weight class to be a runner-up twice will give you the top spot with a bullet.
The most decorated wrester in Illini history, I-Mar finished his career with a total record of 129-5. Two of those losses came during his redshirt year, and two others came in the national finals.
His numbers are absurd, and there’s an argument to be made that Martinez is the greatest athlete in Illinois history.