Illinois Yr in Evaluate: Grading each Illini group | Sports activities

The News-Gazette sports staff rates how the 19 athletic programs at the University of Illinois fared during the 2021-22 school year:

Men’s basketball: A

➜ Why an A: The program’s first Big Ten regular-season championship since 2005 — albeit shared with Wisconsin — produced a No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament, a second straight trip to the NCAA tournament, another First Team All-American in Kofi Cockburn and another contract extension for coach Brad Underwood.

➜ High point: The storming of Lou Henson Court inside State Farm Center capped a memorable March 6, with Illinois fending off Iowa 74-72 in the regular-season finale. Earlier in the day, lowly Nebraska beat Wisconsin 74-73 to allow the Illini to clinch a share of the Big Ten title.

➜ Low point: March started out great for the Illini, but finished with a thud. A 65-63 loss to Indiana in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament ended the Illini’s stay in Indianapolis after only one game. Their stay in the NCAA tournament was almost just as short, with a narrow 54-53 win against Chattanooga in the first round followed by a 68-53 loss to Houston in the second round.

➜ Big Ten finish: Tied for first

➜ Last year’s grade: A

Men’s golf: A

➜ Why an A: Another year, another Big Ten championship. That’s become the standard for the most consistently UI successful program in the last two decades. The NCAA tournament didn’t net the results coach Mike Small’s team typically sees, but four tournament championships during the course of the year can’t be diminished.

➜ High point: Adrien Dumont de Chassart will go down in Illinois golf lore as one of its most steady players. The Big Ten Player of the Year for the second straight season had the best finish among the Illini at the Big Ten Championships with a second-place effort, with Piercen Hunt’s unlikely final round of an even-par 72 helping lift Illinois past Michigan State on May 1 at the Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort in Indiana for the Big Ten title.

➜ Low point: Having the chance to contend for NCAA titles is the ultimate goal for Illinois. A goal the Illini didn’t come close to realizing this year. Illinois tied for sixth at the NCAA Regional in New Haven, Conn., on May 18, failing to finish among the top-five teams that advanced to the NCAA Championships. It was the first time the program had failed to reach the NCAA Championships since 2007.

➜ Big Ten finish: First

➜ Last year’s grade: A

Softball: B

➜ Why a B: A 10-game winning streak in Big Ten play that began with a 15-5 rout at perennial power Minnesota on ESPN2 saw Tyra Perry’s team make up for some shaky nonconference play with a solid enough resume to reach the NCAA tournament for the eighth time since the program started in 2000. That the season ended with five straight losses, including an 0-2 mark in the NCAA tournament, marred some of the progress made this spring on an eventual 34-22 team.

➜ High point: Poor weather and a weekday afternoon start time diminished what should have been a solid crowd at Eichelberger Field. But that didn’t bother Sydney Sickels and her teammates during an 8-0 win against Top-10 foe Northwestern on April 20 in Urbana. Sickels ran her scoreless innings streak to 26 with a five-inning shutout and Megan Ward drove in three runs in the impressive win.

➜ Low point: Three errors against Ohio State was the downfall for the Illini in a 5-1 loss in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals on May 12, ending Illinois’ stay in East Lansing, Mich., after only one game.

➜ Big Ten finish: Third

➜ Last year’s grade: C+

Volleyball: B

➜ Why a B: A third Sweet 16 appearance in the first five seasons of coach Chris Tamas’ tenure at Illinois helped overshadow some Big Ten struggles. Having the vast majority of last year’s team returning in 2022 means the external expectations won’t waver this coming fall.

➜ High point: Beating the defending national champion, on its home court no less, in a win-or-go-home scenario is a big deal. Raina Terry delivered a resounding 27 kills to lead the Illini to a 25-22, 20-25, 25-10, 25-21 win at Kentucky on Dec. 4 in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

➜ Low point: Facing top-tier Big Ten teams. The stakes will only intensify in a few years with Southern California and UCLA joining the league in 2024. Illinois went 22-12 on the season, but only 2-8 against the six teams that finished ahead of the Illini in the league standings.

➜ Big Ten finish: Seventh

➜ Last year’s grade: C

Baseball: B-

➜ Why a B-: Success in the Big Ten. Lack of success in nonconference play. It all added up to Illinois needing a Big Ten tournament run to reach the NCAA tournament. Which abruptly ended with two losses to Michigan and Indiana out in Omaha, Neb., on the same day (the Illini’s 7-5 loss to Michigan ended at 2:16 a.m. on May 27 and the Illini’s 8-1 loss to Indiana ended at 8:44 p.m. on May 27).

➜ High point: The final regular-season game at Illinois Field ended in dramatic fashion. After two lengthy rain delays totaling nearly five hours, the Illini capped a 5-4 win against Nebraska when Justin Janas singled home Braden Comia with the winning run to wipe out a 4-0 deficit Illinois faced after five innings.

➜ Low point: Following a three-game sweep of Purdue at Illinois Field, the Illini made the short trip to Normal to play Illinois State on Feb. 5. And returned to Champaign nursing a 10-1 loss to the Redbirds. All told, the Illini only went 4-4 against nonconference in-state teams, a key reason why they missed out on an at-large NCAA tournament bid.

➜ Big Ten finish: Tied for second

➜ Last year’s grade: C+

Men’s gymnastics: B-

➜ Why a B-: A Big Ten team title and an NCAA team title are realistic goals for one of the few remaining men’s college gymnastics programs in the country. Neither materialized, and Illinois didn’t produce an individual national champion for the first time since 2017. Throw in coaching changes, and it added up to an uneven year.

➜ High point: The Illini clicked on March 19 in Colorado Springs, Colo. Illinois registered a season-best score of 416.000 to top Navy and Air Force, with Hamish Carter winning the all-around and Ian Skirkey winning the pommel horse title with a career-high score of 15.400.

➜ Low point: The departure of Justin Spring. The veteran Illinois coach and former Illini All-American left the program he’s given so much of his life to in late June to become an assistant coach with the Alabama women’s gymnastics team.

➜ Big Ten finish: Fourth

➜ Last year’s grade: B+

Women’s golf: C+

➜ Why a C+: Renee Slone’s program hasn’t delivered Big Ten titles like the Illini men’s golf program. But the two teams who will share Atkins Golf Club aren’t at the opposite end of the spectrum, with Slone guiding the Illini back to the NCAA Regionals for the fifth time since 2017.

➜ High point: Crystal Wang liked the layout at the Golf Club of Houston. The Illini senior shot a 13-under par 203 to tie for third place at the ICON Invitational in late February, helping Illinois set the lowest round in program history. It all added up to a second-place finish at the 15-team tournament

➜ Low point: Only Denver had a worst opening round than the Illini during the first day of the NCAA Regional in Tallahassee, Fla. The Illini weren’t able to get past their first-day struggles and finish among the top five teams who advanced to the NCAA Championships, winding up in ninth place at the 12-team field.

➜ Big Ten finish: Fifth

➜ Last year’s grade: C

Women’s gymnastics: C+

➜ Why a C+: Two of the program’s three highest team scores in history happened this winter as coach Nadalie Walsh’s Illini ended its season in the NCAA Regionals to make up for a disappointing performance at the Big Ten Championships. Two Illini, Mia Takekawa and Mia Townes, ended their seasons competing as individuals at the NCAA Championships.

➜ High point: Bolstered by strong performances from Townes on beam and Takekawa on bars, the Illini produced a team score of 197.375 at the NCAA Regionals in Seattle on March 31. The score was the second-highest in program history, but ultimately wasn’t enough to help the team advance as only the top-two teams qualified for the NCAA Championships.

➜ Low point: Winning at Penn State on Jan. 29 and then traveling to Nebraska, the Illini couldn’t start out the season 3-0 after compiling a season-low score of 195.450 in a loss to the Cornhuskers on Jan. 31.

Big Ten finish: Eighth

Last year’s grade: B-

Women’s tennis: C+

➜ Why a C+: A 16-9 record and 8-3 mark in Big Ten play showed coach Evan Clark’s program is capable of consistent success. But no NCAA tournament appearance or any player representing the Illini during the NCAA Championships in singles or doubles action when the event was held in Urbana left a little to be desired.

➜ High point: Beating their rival is always reason to celebrate. Which is what the Illini did in rallying past Northwestern for a 4-3 victory on Senior Day at Atkins Tennis Center on April 17. Another bright spot: Shivani Ingle was the only senior on the roster this past season, meaning the Illini return their top-six players next season.

➜ Low point: Oklahoma proved it was a power at Atkins Tennis Center in late May, with the Sooners eventually reaching the national championship match. The Sooners rolled past the Illini 4-0 on March 6 in Norman, Okla., with Illinois not winning a single set in the match.

➜ Big Ten finish: Tied for third

➜ Last year’s grade: C

Football: C

➜ Why a C: The Bret Bielema Era kicked off with a bang against Nebraska. Then, an up-and-down season commenced, with lowlights in September (a four-game losing streak) and highlights in October (nine-overtime win at Penn State). A 10th straight losing season and second straight season without a bowl trip ensued.

➜ High point: Brandon Peters rolling out to find Casey Washington for the game-winning two-point conversion brought an end — mercifully, in the opinion of some — to the Illini’s 20-18 nine-overtime win at No. 7 Penn State on Oct. 23. The nine overtimes set a new NCAA record and gave Illinois only its second-ever win at Beaver Stadium.

➜ Low point: Following up all the positive mojo the Illini collected in State College by losing 20-14 at home to Rutgers the following week. A bowl berth seemingly slipped out of the Illini’s grasp with their loss to the Scarlet Knights.

➜ Big Ten finish: Fifth (Big Ten West)

➜ Last year’s grade: D-

Women’s cross-country: C

➜ Why a C: A team title at the 13-team Redbird Invite in mid-September in Normal provided an early season boost for a program that ultimately saw its season end short of a spot at the NCAA Championships after placing fifth at the 32-team NCAA Midwest Regional on Nov. 12.

➜ High point: Emma Milburn posted a runner-up finish, while teammates Allison McGrath and Rebecca Craddock also finished in the top 10 for the Illini during their team title at the Redbird Invite.

➜ Low point: Of the six meets the Illini competed in, their worst finish was a 12th-place showing at the 25-team Joe Piante Invitational on Oct. 1 in South Bend, Ind. Milburn was the only Illini to finish in the top 50, doing so in 49th place.

Big Ten finish:

Last year’s grade:

Men’s cross-country: C

➜ Why a C: Jon Davis capped his Illini cross-country career by qualifying for the NCAA Championships, the team won the 12-team Redbird Invite in mid-September and placed fifth at the 28-team NCAA Midwest Regional.

➜ High point: Basically any time Davis could finish a race. The Oakwood native placed second at the NCAA Midwest Regional, third at the Big Ten Championships, second at the Joe Piane Invitational and first at the Redbird Invite.

➜ Low point: Illinois finished near the bottom at the Joe Piane Invitational (20th out of 23 teams) and at the NCAA Pre-Nationals Meet (37th out of 40 teams). Add in the fact Davis was unable to finish his race at the NCAA Championships, and some missed opportunities popped up.

➜ Big Ten finish: Sixth

➜ Last year’s grade: B-

Men’s tennis: C

➜ Why a C: The Atkins Tennis Center and Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex hosted the 2022 NCAA Championships in Urbana in late May. Except the Illini did not have a chance to find itself among the top-eight teams still left playing after a 14-14 record and exit in the Big Ten tournament semifinals left the Illini out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995.

➜ High point: Rattling off four straight wins at the end of the regular season gave coach Brad Dancer’s program some hope going into the Big Ten tournament. A 4-1 Senior Day win against Purdue on April 24 bumped the Illini’s record back to .500 just before the start of the Big Ten tournament.

➜ Low point: Losing 4-2 at Nebraska on April 8 — the first time the Cornhuskers have beaten the Illini in 11 matches between the two programs — signified that this probably wasn’t the Illini’s year.

➜ Big Ten finish: Sixth

➜ Last year’s grade: A

Wrestling: C-

➜ Why a C-: The first year of the Mike Poeta Era ended with Lucas Byrd becoming the 40th wrestler in program history to earn multiple All-American honors after Byrd placed fifth at 133 pounds at the NCAA Championships. But in between was a COVID-19 pause, a 3-7 record in dual meets and only one Big Ten victory.

➜ High point: The final home match at State Farm Center — the first season the Illini wrestled at the venue after previously competing at Huff Hall — resulted in a 36-3 victory against Indiana on Feb. 6.

➜ Low point: Any other Big Ten match. Whether it was on the road against Rutgers, Purdue, Wisconsin or Nebraska or at home against Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota, the results were not ideal.

➜ Big Ten finish: 11th

➜ Last year’s grade: C+

Soccer: D+

➜ Why a D+: All the construction at Demirjian Park, the Illini’s home venue, is done. But the rebuilding of Janet Rayfield’s program continues. The 5-11-1 record that Illinois finished with tied for the fewest wins in Rayfield’s 20 seasons.

➜ High point: Hope Breslin showed why she’d become an eventual NWSL draft pick by Angel City FC. The midfielder recorded the first hat trick by an Illini since Jannelle Flaws in 2015 with three goals during a 5-1 win at Illinois State on Aug. 22 that improved the Illini to 2-0.

➜ Low point: Basically the entire month of October. After beating Maryland 2-1 for their only Big Ten victory on Oct. 3, Illinois was outscored 15-4 during a closing 0-4-1 stretch to the season.

➜ Big Ten finish: 13th

➜ Last year’s grade: B

Swimming and diving: D+

➜ Why a D+: Illinois went 5-4 in dual meets for its first winning record since 2019, but struggled — again — at the Big Ten Championships. The Illini placed 11th out of 12 teams in what turned out to be long-time coach Sue Novitsky’s final Big Ten meet. She retired in March, with Jeana Kempe hired in late April to try and turn the tides of a struggling program.

➜ High point: The nine-team House of Champions Invitational saw the Illini compile 1,364 points at the three-day event the week before Thanksgiving to place first.

➜ Low point: The final home meet on Jan. 22 at the ARC saw Nebraska win 178-122, with the Cornhuskers securing first-place finishes in 10 of the 16 events.

➜ Big Ten finish: 11th

➜ Last year’s grade: D

Women’s track and field: D+

➜ Why a D+: Olivia Howell continued to shine in the 1,500-meter run on the outdoor scene and in the mile during indoor competitions, helping Illinois to its best Big Ten Outdoor Championships finish since 2013. Still, it was just a ninth-place finish, a far cry from the program’s heyday.

➜ High point: Any time Howell runs. She added to her legacy with a second straight Big Ten title in the 1,500 outdoor and another Big Ten title in the indoor mile.

➜ Low point: Mike Turk had held the title of director of the track and field program since 2017, the first year the former Illini men’s coach took control of the women’s program, too, but Josh Whitman fired him in the first week of July.

➜ Big Ten finish: 10th (indoor); 9th (outdoor)

➜ Last year’s grade: D

Men’s track and field: D

➜ Why a D: The firing of Turk signifies change is coming to a program that has struggled against other Big Ten teams in recent years despite facility upgrades.

➜ High point: Jon Davis running in the finals of the 1,500-meter run at the NCAA Outdoor Championships on June 10 in Eugene, Ore. The Oakwood native ended his college career with a sixth-place finish and First Team All-American honors.

➜ Low point: The Illini only had five individuals and two relay teams record top-eight finishes at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships, a key reason why Illinois only finished with 171/2 points.

➜ Big Ten finish: 10th (indoor); 12th (outdoor)

➜ Last year’s grade: C-

Women’s basketball: D-

➜ Why a D-: Nancy Fahey’s fifth and final season in charge brought about a subpar 7-20 record that included a dismal 1-13 record in Big Ten play. New coach Shauna Green is tasked with arguably the biggest rebuild of any UI athletic program going into the 2022-23 school year.

➜ High point: Five players in double figures ended the Illini’s 11-game losing streak with a 75-66 win against Wisconsin in the first round of the Big Ten tournament on March 2 in Indianapolis.

➜ Low point: Fahey retired with a 42-99 record in charge of the Illini, but the 93-61 home loss to No. 7 Indiana on Feb. 9 was disheartening. Playing their first game at State Farm Center in almost three weeks, the Illini trailed 28-8 at the end of the first quarter and never had a chance.

➜ Big Ten finish: 14th

➜ Last year’s grade: D-

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