Don't look now, but the Illini sports schedule begins this week, with Janet Rayfield's women's soccer team hosting Gonzaga at 7 p.m. Friday in its season opener. With plenty more action to follow through next June, News-Gazette staff writer JEFF HUTH offers five storylines to get fans ready for a busy 2011-12 Illini calendar.
How will volleyball cope with the departure of a special senior class?
One of the most successful classes in the rich history of Illini volleyball said its goodbyes following the 2010 season. Arriving in 2007, after the program had dipped to the lower reaches of the Big Ten, the foursome of Laura DeBruler, Hillary Haen, Johannah Bangert and Nicole Kump served as the driving force in elevating Illini volleyball back into the national elite. Over its final three seasons, this class helped Illinois win 76 of 97 matches, never finished lower than third in the Big Ten and advanced to three NCAA Sweet 16s. Along the way, DeBruler became the UI's all-time career kills leader, and Bangert achieved the same distinction in blocks. With their departures, the primary question facing Kevin Hambly's program is: Can the Illini absorb these losses and remain on a high trajectory? Certainly, there is reason for optimism. Illinois returns a pair of All-Americans in Colleen Ward and Michelle Bartsch, school record-setting libero Jennifer Beltran (formerly Bonilla), and two other members of the regular rotation. It also adds a four-member freshman class ranked third in the nation, continuing a string of strong talent infusions. As always, when a team must replace its setter — particularly one the stature of All-American Haen — the focus will be on the successor. In this case, it's redshirt junior Annie Luhrsen — a former Big East Freshman of the Year at Connecticut — who's spent the past two years training in the UI's system.
Who will fill the goalkeeper role for soccer?
It seems like Alexandra Kapicka has been in goal forever for the Illini. After five years on campus, the last three as the starter, Kapicka finally has exhausted all eligibility after making a career of frustrating so many would-be goal scorers. She departs as one of the UI's all-time best at her position, ranking second in career saves, No. 3 in career shutouts and career goals-against average, and No. 4 in career saves percentage. With Kapicka gone, who will be the last line of defense for the 2011 Illini? The leading candidate is junior Steph Panozzo, the lone goalie on the roster with college playing experience. Coach JANET Rayfield also cites the Maple Ridge, British Columbia, native's previous play with Canada's U-20 national team and with the North American amateur W-League in labeling Panozzo the front-runner. "Those environments have provided her with the experience to be the best decision-maker in our goalkeeping group," the UI coach said. Last season, Panozzo split time with Kapicka in the first five matches before Rayfield settled on the latter. In that limited trial, Panozzo allowed one goal in 225 minutes. At 5-foot-6, she lacks the preferred height for a keeper, but Panozzo compensates with above-average athleticism. And as her confidence grows, she's become more aggressive. "She has really worked on the courage coming off the line," Rayfield said, "and that has improved her decision-making as well." Looking to make Rayfield's decision on a starter tougher are 5-10 sophomore Lauren Parkin, a former all-stater from Edwardsville, and 5-7 freshman Lizzi Sanscrainte, who had nine shutouts as a senior at Lincolnshire Stevenson.
Was the Big Ten tournament run a mirage or the beginning of a turnaround for women's basketball?
The glass-half-full crowd surely will vote for the latter. After limping through the regular season with a 7-22 record, including a 2-14 Big Ten mark that was the worst in program history, Jolette Law's Illini blew up everyone's bracket picks in the conference tournament. In fact, it was a historic performance, with Illinois becoming the first No. 11 seed in the event's history to reach the semifinals. While there certainly was an out-of-nowhere feel to this stunning reversal of course, the Illini did provide occasional hints that this team really wasn't as bad as its record indicated. Exhibit A: Five losses in which the opponent made a shot during the final 10 seconds with the game tied or Illinois ahead. The glass-half-empty crowd, of course, will rightly ask, "Why didn't we see more of the Big Ten tournament Illini during the regular season?" As Law's fifth Illinois team prepares for a new season, the question now becomes: Will the Illini pick up where they left off or slip back to their pre-conference tournament form? With no seniors on last season's team, an experienced UI group should be positioned to hit the ground running when practice begins. In the Illini's favor, too, is the presence of Karisma Penn, who is coming off a breakout season. The junior was the lone player in the Big Ten to rank among the league's top five in scoring, rebounding, blocks and field goal percentage. Whether she gets more help this time around will go a long way in determining the answer to the above question.
Is this the year for men's gymnastics?
Seems like we've been asking that same question for much of the past decade. And with good reason. Under former coach Yoshi Hayasaki and current coach Justin Spring, the Illini have finished second or third at the NCAA Championships five times in the last eight years — and never lower than fifth. We suspect the UI team that placed third last season always will wonder what might have been had three-time NCAA individual champion Paul Ruggeri not suffered a season-ending ankle injury in early February. Did his unfortunate absence cost Illinois its best shot at its first NCAA team title since 1989? As the Illini prepare to take yet another stab at the NCAA's biggest trophy in 2012, the good news is that seven-time All-American Ruggeri is back, rejoining a team that returns plenty of familiar faces. And that's really good news, considering that Illinois last season won a third straight Big Ten title en route to nationals. Headlining that group is senior Tyler Mizoguchi, the defending NCAA champion in parallel bars and the all-around runner-up. Other marquee returnees include senior All-Americans Anthony Sacramento and C.J. Padera. The Illini also have some highly promising younger talent in the likes of sophomores Jordan Valdez and Cameron Rogers — each former U.S. Junior national champions — and freshman Mike Wilner, the reigning Junior Olympics national champion in still rings. But the biggest addition is freshman C.J. Maestas. Already a member of the U.S. Senior National Team, the New Mexico native won still rings and was third in all-around at the 2011 U.S. Winter Cup. For an Illini team so long on the cusp of an NCAA title, Maestas could be the difference-maker who gets it done.
What toll did graduation, draft take on the defending Big Ten baseball co-champs?
The 2011 Illini weren't called the Comeback Kids for nothing. Dan Hartleb's never-say-die bunch recorded 21 come-from-behind victories to resurrect a season that, as late as April 20, seemingly was going nowhere. It proved to be one of the most remarkable turnarounds by any UI team in any sport as Illinois — at one point 12-21 — surged to a Big Ten co-title, swept its way to the conference tournament crown and was among the final two teams in its NCAA regional. As Hartleb & Co. look forward to a new season, the comeback theme still applies. Can a program that graduated nine seniors and lost three juniors to the draft overcome such significant personnel losses in 2012? And we do mean significant. The departing group includes five starting position players, two of its top three starting pitchers and its top two relievers. And the roster hits might not be done, as star recruit and second-round draft pick Charlie Tilson faces a Monday deadline on whether to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals or head to Illinois Field. With plenty of holes to fill, the Illini will have their depth put to the test. Can recent recruiting classes step in and step up? Can key returnees like right fielder Davis Hendrickson, third baseman Brandon Hohl, center fielder Willie Argo and pitcher Kevin Johnson provide needed leadership — on the field and in the clubhouse — for a largely inexperienced team? If the answers are yes, a vastly revamped Illini squad that figures to be largely overlooked entering the 2012 season could make things interesting. If not, it could be a trying year.