By Mike Pearson
The third decade of University of Illinois women’s athletics propelled the Fighting Illini into national prominence, including individual NCAA championships and multiple Big Ten Athlete of the Year recognitions.
Significant accomplishments by volleyball, basketball, golf and track and field helped Illini publicists spread the word about the achievements of such athletes as Tonja Buford, Renee Heiken, Lindsey Nimmo and Ashley Berggren.
Additionally, newly appointed Illini Director of Athletics Ron Guenther was responsible for a flurry of coaching hirings, including basketball’s Theresa Grentz and volleyball’s Don Hardin. He also oversaw the creation of two new varsity programs—soccer and softball—and the selection of coaches Jill Ellis and Terri Sullivan.
Four new athletic facilities were also built for the latter two sports, plus facilities for basketball, track and field and tennis. The Bielfeldt Athletics Administration Building was also completed. Furthermore, during the 1990s, the volleyball program began hosting its competitions at Huff Hall.
Here is a chronological look at several of the most memorable Illini women’s moments of the 1990s:
February 24, 1990: Illini women’s track and field team athletes claimed six individual Big Ten championships enroute to tie-for-second-place finish.
March 24, 1990: The Fighting Illini women’s gymnastics team won the Big Ten team championship, something it had never achieved before. Bev Mackes was named Big Ten Coach of the Year.
May 9, 1990: Illini hired Kathy Lindsey as its new women’s basketball coach.
June 2, 1990: At the NCAA Championships, UI’s Celena Mondie-Milner placed second in the 100-meter dash, while she and teammates Renee Carr, Tonja Buford and Althea Thomas finished second in the 4×100-meter relay.
September 4, 1990: Huff Hall debuted as the home of Illini volleyball. On hand for the special occasion were UI basketball’s famed “Whiz Kids.”
February 23, 1991: Illini team athletes claimed three individual Big Ten championships enroute to a second-place finish.
March 11, 1991: Basketball’s Sarah Sharp named first-team All-Big Ten; Mandy Cunningham earned conference’s Freshman of the Year honors.
May 5, 1991: Sophomore Renee Heiken won medalist honors at the Big Ten Women’s Golf Championships.
May 18, 1991: Freshman Tonja Buford was named the top athlete at the Big Ten Outdoor Track and Field Championships, winning the 100 hurdles and running legs on the winning 400 and 1,600 relay units.
August 22, 1991: Illini women’s gymnastics Big Ten uneven bars co-champion Lynn Devers was named NCAA State of Illinois Woman of the Year.
September 20, 1991: Cross country’s Laura Simmering set an Illini record with a time of 16:46 at 5,000 meters.
September 28, 1991: The U of I celebrated the 10th anniversary of women’s athletics in the Big Ten Conference.
November 2, 1991: Illinois dedicated its new $2.5 million Atkins Tennis Center.
January 26, 1992: Kathy Lindsay’s basketball squad upset No. 18 Northwestern, 70-58.
February 29, 1992: Illinois’ Tonja Buford claimed three individual titles (55m, 200m, 55m hurdles) at the Big Ten Championships as UI won team trophy.
May 3, 1992: Illinois’ Becky Biehl earned medalist honors at the Big Ten Championships, shooting a four-round total of 319.
May 14, 1992: Ron Guenther was named Illinois’ athletic director.
May 23, 1992: Tonja Buford won three individual events and ran a leg on the winning 4×100 relay team, leading Illinois to victory at the Big Ten Women’s Track and Field Championships.
June 6, 1992: Buford won the 400-meter hurdles at the NCAA Championships, becoming the first Illini women’s track athlete to win a national title.
August 2, 1992: Buford competed in Barcelona’s 1992 Olympics, just missing the finals in the 400-meter hurdles event.
November 9, 1992: Illini volleyball’s Kirsten Gleis named Big Ten Player of the Year.
November 28, 1992: Illini volleyball topped No. 22 Ohio State at Huff Hall, 3-0, extending UI’s Big Ten winning streak to 18 straight. Illinois went on to win its first two NCAA Tournament matches before losing to No. 2 Stanford in the regional semifinals.
December 10, 1992: UI volleyball swept past No. 7 Nebraska in NCAA Tournament play, improving its record to 32-3. The next day, a record crowd of 4,316 watched UI lost in four sets to No. 2 Stanford.
December 16, 1992: Illini volleyball’s Kirsten Gleis named first-team All-America, Tina Rogers second-team.
March 6, 1993: Victories in the 55 dash, the 55 hurdles and the 200 dash by Tonja Buford led Illini women’s track and field to a 41-point team victory over Wisconsin at the Big Ten Championships.
May 2, 1993: Tennis’s Lindsey Nimmo was named Big Ten Women’s Player of the Year, leading Illinois to a program-best second-place finish in the Big Ten.
May 7, 1993: Following 16 years of service, Bev Mackes retired as head women’s gymnastics coach.
May 9, 1993: Renee Heiken shot a final-round 73 and captured medalist honors for the second time at the Big Ten Women’s Golf Championships.
November 30, 1993: Tina Rogers and Kristin Henriksen won first-team All-Big Ten honors for the second straight season.
February 18 & 19, 1994: Senior swimming Jennifer Sadler set varsity records in the 50 and 100-yard freestyle at the Big Ten Championships.
February 26, 1994: Five individual titles helped Illini track and field team finish second at the Big Ten Championships.
October 21, 1994: Ground was broken for the construction of the Bielfeldt Athletics Administration Building. It was dedicated on Oct. 4, 1996.
November 29, 1994: Volleyball’s Julie Edwards won first-team All-Big Ten honors.
February 26, 1995: Four individual titles, including two in the long jump and pentathlon by Carmel Corbett, helped Illini track and field team win the Big Ten Championships.
May 15, 1995: Theresa Grentz was named as the new Illini women’s basketball coach.
May 21, 1995: The Illini women’s track and field squad won eight of the Big Ten Championships’ 19 events and crushed runner-up Wisconsin in the final team standings, 163-112.
May 31, 1995: Illinois and Nike announced a new multi-million-dollar deal.
June 2, 1995: Tonya Williams became only the second Illini woman to win an NCAA outdoor title, capturing the 400-meter hurdles event.
September 23, 1995: Erin Borske’s single-march record 44 kills led Illini volleyball past Penn State.
November 24, 1995: Illini defeated UNC-Greensboro in Coach Theresa Grentz’s coaching debut.
December 13, 1995: Erin Borske won first-team All-America honors.
December 27, 1995: Volleyball’s Mike Hebert resigned from his post as Illinois’ head coach to assume a similar position at Minnesota. On January 19, 1996, Louisville’s Don Hardin was named as his replacement.
January 19, 1996: Illini basketball destroyed No. 14 Arkansas, 88-64.
February 8, 1996: The 100th anniversary of the founding of the Big Ten Conference was observed.
February 25, 1996: Six individual titles, including two by Dawn Riley, led the Illini track and field team to its fourth indoor Big Ten team title in the last five years.
March 1, 1996: Illini basketball won its first-ever Big Ten Tournament game, topping Indiana, 84-70.
May 31, 1996: Illinois’ Tonya Williams captured the NCAA 400-meter title.
December 29, 1996: Illini women’s basketball upset No. 16 Wisconsin, 73-67, led by Ashley Berggren’s 23 points.
January 8, 1997: Ashley Berggren’s 23 points and 20 more from Alicia Sheeler helped Illinois blitz No. 10 Arkansas, 100-81.
January 30, 1997: UI named Jillian Ellis as the first Illini soccer coach.
February 14, 1997: The Illini women’s basketball team won a Big Ten game for the 11th time in its last 12 opportunities, beating host Ohio State, 84-81. Illinois went on tie for the Big Ten title, its first ever, and battle its way into the NCAA’s Sweet Sixteen.
February 23, 1997: A record-breaking crowd of 16,050 at the Assembly Hall watched Illini women’s basketball host Purdue.
March 1, 1997: Theresa Grentz was named Big Ten’s Coach of the Year, Ashley Berggren Player of the Year.
March 2, 1997: Illini women’s basketball topped Michigan State in the semifinal round, 77-66, to qualify for its first-ever championship game appearance. Iowa defeated Illinois in the championship game, 63-56.
March 14 & 16, 1997: Illini basketball defeated Drake (79-62) and Duke (85-67) at the NCAA Tournament. They were eliminated by top-ranked UConn six days later.
March 27, 1999: Illini gymnastics’ Gina Weichmann won the Big Ten championship in balance bar.
September 5, 1997: Illini soccer’s first-ever game ended with a 4-0 shutout against Loyola.
October 14, 1997: Soccer’s Rachel Smith scored three goals in one half against Aurora, leading Illinois to a record-setting 10 goals (10-1). This still stands as a record for largest margin of victory.
December 8, 1997: Illini basketball placed No. 5 in the Associated Press poll, its highest ranking ever. Four days later, UI lost at No. 1 Tennessee, 78-68.
December 28 & 30, 1997: Illini basketball defeated No. 22 Purdue and No. 11 Wisconsin in back-to-back games.
February 27, 1998: Ashley Berggren was named Illini MVP for a record third consecutive time. Theresa Grentz was honored as Big Ten’s Coach of the Year.
March 9, 1998: Ashley Berggren named third-team All-America, becoming the first UI player to attain national honors.
March 14 & 16, 1998: UI basketball opened NCAA Tournament play with back-to-back victories over Wisconsin-Green Bay and UC-Santa Barbara. The Illini placed 14th in the final national poll.
March 21, 1998: Ashley Berggren ended her career as UI’s all-time leading scorer (2,089 points).
October 8, 1998: Illini women’s basketball team practiced for the first time at UI’s new Ubben Center.
November 5, 1998: Junior midfielder Kelly Buszkiewicz became the first Illini soccer player to win first-team All-Big Ten honors.
November 19, 1998: Basketball opened its season with a 76-58 victory at No. 19 Stanford.
December 4 & 5, 1998: Coach Don Hardin’s Illini volleyball team beat Southwest Texas and No. 17 Colorado to open NCAA Tournament play.
December 19, 1998: Basketball stunned No. 14 Florida, 97-77.
February 28, 1999: Illini women’s basketball defeated nationally ranked Penn State for a second time, winning by a score of 77-75 on a last-second shot at the Big Ten Tournament. It lost to Purdue the next day in the championship game, 80-76.
June 23, 1999: Terri Sullivan was named Illinois softball’s first coach.
July 7, 1999: Tricia Taliaferro was named Illinois soccer’s second coach.
August 27, 1999: Illinois christened its new soccer field with a 3-1 victory over Marquette.
September 14, 1999: Illini soccer was included in the national rankings for the very first time, placing 21st in the National Soccer Coaches Association poll.
September 19, 1999: Illini soccer defeated No. 12 Wisconsin, 3-1, UI’s first-ever victory over a ranked opponent.
November 27, 1999: UI’s women’s basketball team beat No. 6 Notre Dame in South Bend, 77-67. Three days later, UI lost at No. 1 UConn.
December 18, 1999: Illini basketball beat No. 20 Kansas, 61-59, in their first-ever game at the United Center.