It’s the offseason for all of Illini Athletics, so now is the perfect time to take a look at how every team is doing. In this series, we will be looking at the state of every program: where they were last season, the expectations for next season, and the long-term trajectories. First up, the Fall programs: Football, Volleyball, Soccer, and Cross Country.
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2021 Record: 5-7 (4-5)
Coach: Bret Bielema (1 season)
Record at Illinois: 5-7
2021 Recap: Year one under Bert was an adventure. Some baffling coaching decisions led flipped a few possible wins into the loss column (in particular the game at Purdue), but a reversion to old-school Big Ten football led to massive wins on the road at then-ranked Penn State and Minnesota. Missing out on a bowl game probably wasn’t what Illini fans had in mind considering all the returning talent the 2021 squad had, but there were enough encouraging signs along with an absolute walloping of Northwestern for the LOLHAT that the fanbase was relatively content with a 5-7 record.
2022 Outlook: You know all that returning talent that gave Illini fans some optimism going into 2021? Well, a good chunk of it has moved on. On offense, QB Brandon Peters has graduated, along with a good chunk of the offensive line, in particular Vederian Lowe and Doug Kramer. Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito will battle Art Sitkowski to helm the offense, and they’ll have a good stable of running backs to hand the ball off to with Chase Brown and Josh McCray. If they get bold enough to throw the ball, most of the targets from last year are returning, including Isaiah Williams, Casey Washington, and Luke Ford, although explosive TE Daniel Barker transferred to Michigan State. With the talent exodus on the line, chances are the offense should take a step back overall.
The defense is a similar story. Rod Perry and Owen Carney are gone from the line, Isaiah Gay, Jake Hansen, and Khalan Tolson all departed from the linebacker corps, and the-single-high-safety-in-the-single-high-safety-defense Kerby Joseph was picked in the third round by the Lions. There’s plenty of talent remaining, however. Sophomores Keith Randolph and Johnny Newton showed plenty of promise on the line in 2021. CJ Hart was outstanding against Nebraska before suffering a season-ending injury. Shutdown corner Devon Witherspoon and Troy Polamalu-impersonator Sydney Brown return to the secondary. It’s easy to talk yourself into this being a solid group again, but so much of it comes down to plugging that hole in the middle of the line. Can Calvin Avery live up to his potential finally, or Verdis Brown or Northwestern transfer Terah Edwards do the job? If you can answer yes to either of those questions, 2022 looks promising on this side of the ball.
This is Illini football, so we have to talk about the special teams. Everybody is gone now. Other-worldly punter Blake Hayes is off to Canada, Illini legend James McCourt is kicking with the Chargers, and longsnapper Ethan Tabel is now making jokes on Twitter full time (I’m assuming). Since one Australian worked out so well, Bielema is tapping former Victorian police officer Hugh Robertson to be Hayes’ successor. Part-time wide receiver Caleb Griffin looks like the replacement for McCourt, and frankly the longsnapper battle looks wide open at the moment.
Overall Program Trend: Positive, generally. DC Ryan Walters’ defense wasn’t earth-shatteringly spectacular, but it was pretty darn good. Just the overall level of responsibility was a breath of fresh air for Illini fans, and Walters was rewarded with a raise for his work. As for the other side of the ball, OC Tony Petersen’s offense was not good in the slightest, and he was summarily fired for that. In comes Barry Lunney Jr. from UTSA to hopefully add some excitement to that side of the ball. If he can replicate what the Roadrunners did to the Illini in September of 2021, things are looking up for Illinois. Recruiting is even picking up as well. Bielema is making inroads at most Illinois high schools who felt they were frozen out by the previous staff, and the couple of classes he has put together reflect that. He hasn’t quite convinced the top tier of talent to stay home, but he has won a couple of battles against other Big Ten rivals.
The best way to look at Illini football is with short-term pessimism and long-term optimism, but both in moderation. Next year might be kind of rough with all the talent that has left along the lines, but enough pieces remain to prevent some of the abhorrent seasons Illini fans have put up with. Long term, this team could become respectable, although Rose Bowls and playoff appearances year after year would be a bit too over the top of expectations for this program.
2021 Record: 22-12
Coach: Chris Tamas (5 seasons)
Record at Illinois: 100-52
2021 Recap: The 2021 version of Illini volleyball would probably be best described as responsible. Of their 11 regular season losses, only one was to a team that did not make the NCAA tournament (Colorado). They took care of business otherwise, and outside of wins on the road at then-#4 Purdue and then-#13 Penn State, they didn’t pull off any major upsets during the regular season. This sort of resume generally means an NCAA tournament berth albeit without hosting privileges, which meant the Illini went on the road to defending champions Kentucky for the first two rounds. After a fairly routine win over West Virginia in the first round, the Illini stunned the Wildcats in four sets to punch their ticket to the Sweet Sixteen where they got run off the court by the eventual runners up Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Some who were the key cogs in this steady machine? The heavy lifting was done by a couple of veterans: OH Megan Cooney and L/DS Taylor Kuper. Cooney paced the attack with 3.03 kills per set and 0.67 blocks per set, which garnered her All-B1G First Team and All-American Honorable Mention Honors. Meanwhile, Kuper led the defense on the backline with digs/set. Their steady play allowed some other players to grow into their roles. In particular, rising Junior OH Reina Terry took her game to another level, leading the team with 3 and half kills per set and 55 aces on the season.
If you want to pick the biggest development player-wise from the 2021 season, it has to be rising Senior MB Kennedy Collins’ versatility. Her .334 hitting percentage and 126 blocks led the team last season, but the more important story is her growth outside of the front row over the season. She eventually gained Coach Tamas’ trust to feature regularly in the back row, which is remarkable for a middle blocker, and she was downright competent. Her 13 aces and 62 digs on the season aren’t eye-popping, but keep in mind she only played in her expanded role late towards the end of the season.
2022 Outlook: It’s a tale of two rows really. I am confident that the front row will be fine. Cooney may be gone, but the rest of the rotation is intact, with Terry, Collins, Jessica Nunge, and Kyla Swanson all back for at least another go-around. Add in the talented Ellie Holzman and Bruna Vrankovic hopefully recovered from injury, Kayla Burbage transferring in from Mizzou, and Sophie Stevenson and Carrie Bohm as part of the incoming recruiting class, Coach Tamas has plenty of talent to choose from in the coming fall.
Setter is settled. Kylie Bruuuuuuuder has graduated, but she finished her Illini career as mostly a serving specialist. Diana Brown is here for another year before likely heading off to med school. She may not be an All-Conference level setter, but she is more than solid in her role. If she goes down with an injury or something else strange happens, one of either RS Freshman Brooke Mosher or incoming Freshman Bianca May will have to fill her shoes. Thanks to DB though, this shouldn’t be much of a question mark.
The back row…I don’t know. Kuper is gone, and she did most of the heavy lifting in the back. Caroline Barnes is back for her sophomore season, and although she made some serious strides over the season, I don’t think she will be quite at Kuper’s level as the libero. There’s only one other defensive specialist on the roster, so it’s looking like Tamas has three options here: 1) RS Freshman Becca Sakoda does fill that role as the other DS. 2) The transfer portal produces a new face. 3) He changes up the rotation so that he only really has to play the Libero and no other defensive specialist. I don’t know if the third option is possible because I barely understand volleyball rotations even during the season. Whatever the case, this is the biggest question heading into 2022. Find a good answer, and 2022 should be at least as good as 2021 for Illini Volleyball.
Overall Program Trend: Steady. It’s a very good sign when other P5 programs are hiring away your assistant coaches as their head coach, and former Illini assistant Rashinda Reed is now in charge of the Alabama Crimson Tide. Tamas has tapped former All-American at Washington and assistant coach at Indiana Krista Vansant as her replacement.
Best I can tell, Illini volleyball’s trend as of late has been solid, top half of the B1G finishes with a few otherworldly seasons and a few downers interspersed here or there, and that should continue. The B1G is shifting a bit, however. Nebraska and Wisconsin were in the NCAA finals last year and will be forces to be reckoned with. Minnesota is always strong, Purdue has cemented itself in the top tier, as has Ohio State, Penn State might take a step back after their longtime coach retired, and the floor continues to rise.
If Illinois wants to keep pace or even consistently battle for the top spot in the conference, the big improvement has to be recruiting. The talent development is clearly there. It’s just a matter of getting even more talent to develop. It’s possible that Tamas recognizes this because Vansant has been named the recruiting coordinator. She did some good work at a relative B1G minnow in Indiana attracting talent, so there’s reason for optimism here. The long-term expectation should be consistency from the Illini, but steps toward the upper echelon of the B1G and college volleyball in general wouldn’t be a shock.
2021 Record: 213-160-36
Coach: Janet Rayfield (21 seasons)
Record at Illinois: 213-160-36
2021 Recap: The 2021 Illini Soccer season was the most brutal season of sports I have ever suffered through as a fan. It started off promisingly with dominant wins at rivals Mizzou and Illinois State. They came home to a brand-spanking-new Demirjian Park where they laid three eggs in a row to UNC, Butler, and Xavier. Two wins at Toledo and Bowling Green capped off the nonconference play. Conference play was hell. The Illini only managed one win (a sloppy 2-1 at home against Maryland) and one draw (a 1-1 tie at home with Wisconsin). The rest of the season was a snowstorm of losses, with no two defeats being alike. Add it all together and you get a team that finished 13th in the B1G.
So what went wrong? The first thing to always check is the midfield. Coach Rayfield trotted out a very traditional 4-3-3 formation, which certainly had its pros and cons. If those three in the middle could put up a decent fight in the middle, the slight numerical advantage up front would lead to a much more potent attack. This was generally the case for every Illini win and usually resorted in them being blowouts. If those three in the middle got overwhelmed, it allowed the other team to bombard the back 4 and the inexperienced goalkeeper. A knock to veteran midfield workhorse Maggie Hillman was threw this delicate balance out of whack for most of conference play.
Still, a sturdy defense and good goalkeeping would be able to counteract this. Illinois didn’t *quite* have the first. The back 4 was mostly the same as last season’s reliable group, but after enough pressure, their marking would sometimes break down. The goalkeeper position was an adventure. Julia Cili had the starting role at the beginning of the season and played reasonably ok until she suffered an injury. True freshman and high school All-American Naomi Jackson was her replacement, and she very much played like a talented freshman. She showed some incredible flashes, in particular her record-breaking performance in the closer-than-it-should-have-been loss at Michigan, but she also gave up some howlers, in particular in the 2-1 loss to Purdue and the 2-1 loss at Indiana.
An all-or-nothing approach and some shaky defense doesn’t necessarily mean a 1-8-1 conference. That usually takes some bad luck, which the Illini had in copious amounts. I’ll point to two particular cases, the first being the match at Northwestern, a 1-0 defeat. Overall, it was a cagey affair, with neither team being able to really figure out the turf at Lakefront Stadium. The deciding goal came on a Wildcat corner in the final minute, when a shot seemingly phased through Kendra Pasquale and trickled in. The other case is the one tie Illinois was involved in all season. The Illini thoroughly dominated that 1-1 draw with Wisconsin, controlling the ball most of the match and producing plenty of good chances. The problem was finishing, and star forward Hope Breslin seemed to have the yips. In a very cruel twist of fate, she appeared to have scored the golden goal at the stroke of the first overtime period, but after a very long video review, the refs deemed that it crossed the goal line after the buzzer and didn’t count. That’s how a tie can somehow feel worse than any other loss during a season full of them.
2022 Outlook: Let’s start with the biggest departure: Hope Breslin was the first ever draft pick for NWSL’s Angel City FC and is currently the designated sub for Christen Press. She probably wouldn’t be described as a consistent producer, but she could do things on the field that nobody else could do. The second biggest departure is Maggie Hillman whose workrate in the middle of the park was absurd. The other departures are Lauren Stibich, Ashleigh Lefevre, Erin McKeown, and Katelynn Buescher, all of which were consistently solid contributors.
On the other hand, the whole back four of Aleah Treiterer, Angie Galo, Eileen Murphy, and Canadian youth international Ashley Cathro is remaining intact, and continuity is key for any sort of defense. The goalkeepers both are returning with a much more normal offseason which hopefully irons out those youthful errors. Outside of Hillman, the starting midfield returns, with major contributors Sydney Stephens, Kendra Pasquale, and Joanna Verzosa-Dolezal back for another go-around. Breslin may be gone from the forward depth chart, but Makena Silber decided to use an extra year of eligibility for one last ride before likely heading off to the NWSL. Couple in underclassmen wunderkind Maeve Jones and the speedy Abby Lynch, and there’s still plenty of talent in the attack.
The good news is that with the wealth of experience gained last season, I don’t think 2022 will be as rough as 2021. The bad news is that with most of the same squad returning for 2022, I don’t know how much better it could be. It’s also very tough predicting how good a college soccer team will be because unless that team is a world-beater (which the 2022 Illini won’t be), a lot of results come down to luck. I’m going to play it very safe and say Illinois should make a conservative rebound. A middle-of-the-road B1G finish would be a good expectation for 2022 Illini soccer.
General Program Trend: A bit concerning. This is a program that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2013. Since then, they’ve finished 7th, 8th, 11th, 13th, 5th, 11th, 6th, and 13th in the B1G. To be fair, they got snubbed horribly by the selection committee in 2018, but that’s still not a great run of form.
I’m going to start sounding like a broken record, but it all starts with recruiting. I don’t doubt Rayfield’s ability to coach up college players’ skills, but her teams as of late have been out-muscled and out-paced. The most surefire way to bring this program to its previous standard is to bring in bigger and faster players, particularly in the midfield. A good way to help turbocharge recruiting is by improving facilities, and Illinois has gone from some of the worst soccer facilities in the nation to some of the best in the past two years with Demirjian Park. If the team still continues to flounder in the near future, it’ll be a waste of a golden opportunity. For Illini Soccer, it’s basically now or never.
2021 Results at Regionals: Men - 5th | Women - 5th
Coach: Sarah Haveman (4 seasons)
Best B1G Results at Illinois: Men - 6th (2020-21, 2021) | Women 3rd (2020-2021)
2021 Recap: It’s difficult to really recap a college cross country season because oftentimes teams tinker with their lineups during the regular season due to different training regimens. Then, for the postseason, they go full bore. So, you can make of the regular season what you want, especially with the roster construction the men had. For instance, the men crushed the relatively weak Illinois State Redbird Invite with a relatively full lineup, but at more prestigious meets, they were the ones getting crushed, finishing in 20th out of 23 at Notre Dame’s Joe Piane Invite as a team and 37th out of 40 at Florida State’s Pre-Nationals. It’s a vaguely similar story for the women, who put also dominated the Redbird Invite but took 12th at Notre Dame and 9th at Florida State.
So much more than other sports, the postseason results really indicate the success or failure of a season. For the men, it was…ok I suppose? They finished 6th at the B1G meet and 5th at the NCAA regionals. A good portion of this relative success is due to grad student Jon Davis. He finished 3rd and 2nd overall at the two meets, keeping Illinois’ overall score down. His second in command was sophomore Tyler Cushing, who crossed the line in 12th and 27th respectively for those two meets. Colin Yandel and Jack Roberts do-si-do’d with the 3 and 4 spots, and the final scoring spot was done by committee.
As for the women, the also finished 6th at the B1G meet and 5th at regionals, which, after their success in recent years past, probably feels like a bit of a disappointment. They relied on pack running to an incredible level to build their team score. The five runners that scored in the postseason were grad student Allison McGrath, senior Emma Milburn, junior Olivia Howell, freshman Analyssa Crain, and grad student Rebecca Craddock. The vets in McGrath, Milburn, and Craddock took the second, third, and fifth scoring spots on the team in both postseason meets, while the young guns Crain and Howell traded the first and fourth spots. Frankly, the depth of this team was remarkable. The top 5 finished within 43 seconds of each other at the B1Gs, and they finished within 19 seconds of each other at regionals. Heck, the range was 56 and 23 seconds for the top 7. Keep in mind, this is over a 6k race. Just remarkable.
2022 Outlook: It feels like it’s time to explain how cross country is scored and why I think the men will definitely be worse off than the women this coming season. In cross country, you have a set number of runners who run a race. The first 5 on your team that cross the finish line receive whatever place they get in points (1 point for first place, 2 for second, and so on and so forth). You add those 5 runners’ points together for your team’s score, and lowest team score overall wins.
Now, there are two ways you go about making a middling cross country team. The first option is what the men did: have a front runner who barely scores any points and 4 other vaguely replacement-level runners going up against other teams’ 5 scorers. The second option is what the women did: run in a pack and make sure your 5 scorers working together are solid. The former strategy can lead to much bigger fluctuations in team scores due to the size and quality of the meet while the latter is much more consistent, and this is reflected in their regular season results.
So that’s why the men are going to take a bigger step back than the women. Their frontrunner in Jon Davis is finally leaving, and he’s frankly irreplaceable. Also graduating is Irwin Loud, a RS senior, and likely Colin Yandel, a true senior. Now, Tyler Cushing looks like a promising piece going forward, Jack Roberts was solid, and Alex Partlow, 2021 IHSA 2A State Champion, will be running in the orange and blue next year. They’ll definitely take a sizeable step back due to the graduation of Davis, but overall, the roster has enough promise that it shouldn’t be a complete collapse.
As for the women, it’s next woman up. Craddock and McGrath are most definitely gone, and Milburn might be. I don’t want to say they’re not good runners, because they are, but they’re definitely much more replaceable than someone like Davis for the men. The sixth runner for both postseason races was freshman Halle Hill, who finished 2 and 3 seconds behind Craddock in each race respectively. Meanwhile, freshmen Margaret Gamboa and Sam Poglitsch put up times not far off Hill’s throughout the regular season. With veterans gone, the team will likely suffer a bit, but the overall talent level isn’t dropping too much.
General Program Trend: It’s a tale of two programs really. Coach Havemen has turned the women’s program from a joke into a machine. In the three years preceding her appointment as cross country head coach, the women finished 10th, 10th, and 13th in the conference. In her four years, they have gone 12th, 6th, 3rd, and 6th, and over the past two year, they have hovered around the back end of the top-25 national rankings. It’s frankly remarkable how quickly she has turned the program around, mainly by bringing in solid talent from the Midwest. The floor for the program has risen, and for the first time in a while, the women’s cross country team has momentum.
As for the men, it may take the team a bit to recover from losing a generational talent like Davis. The frustrating thing is that Havemen and the previous coaching staff kind of built the team around Davis, and unfortunately, due mainly to injuries, it never quite came together. So a rebuild is likely in order now. A good way to go about that is to keep good talent home, and Havemen is definitely doing that, recruiting Partlow to Chambana and having a roster that is 100% Illinois natives. However, as much cross country talent as Illinois has, it’s tough to build a competitive roster completely out of just Prairie State natives. Havemen has crossed some borders to attract some talent from Wisconsin and Indiana for the women, so it shouldn’t be hard to do something like that with the men. That’s sort of the reasoning overall for not despairing about the trajectory of men’s cross country right now. It might be a bit bleak for a season or two, but the coach in charge has shown that she can rebuild a cross country program at the University of Illinois.
Photo Credits: Craig Pessman / Illini Athletics, Craig Pessman / Illini Athletics, Craig Pessman / Illini Athletics, Illini Athletics
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