Other University of Illinois teams of interest
Mike Small will have some holes to fill for the 2010-11 season, but he’ll also be the only Division I men’s coach with a defending national champion in his lineup. In June, Scott Langley became the first Illini in the sport to medal at the NCAA Championships. The historic feat capped a record-breaking season for the St. Louis area native, who finished with the lowest single-season stroke average (71.39) in the school history — a school that’s produced the likes of current PGA Tour players Steve Stricker and D.A. Points. Illinois returns three of the five golfers who combined to finish 19th in the NCAA tournament. National Player of the Year Langley and senior classmate Chris DeForest, who won three tournaments last season, will be looking to play on their fourth straight NCAA Championships-qualifying team next spring.
Look for Terri Sullivan’s Illini to receive prominent billing when the 2011 preseason national polls are released. Following one of the most successful seasons in team history, Illinois returns all but one starter in the field and its top two pitchers. Illinois finished 45-8 in 2010, setting a team record for winning percentage (.849) and matching its second-most wins in a season. The Illini also made a second straight NCAA tournament appearance, where they went 2-2 in the regional at Columbia, Mo. Ranked No. 18 in the final coaches’ poll, Illinois reaped plenty of individual awards, most notably sophomore first baseman Meredith Hackett, who became the second first-team All-American in program history. Big Ten Coach of the Year Sullivan saw six of her players named All-Big Ten, including first-teamers Hackett, Danielle Zymkowitz (second base) and Hope Howell (outfield).
Kevin Hambly’s Illini will be hungry to advance farther into the NCAA tournament after being eliminated in the Sweet 16 each of the past two seasons. There’s reason to think Illinois has a good shot at the Elite Eight or even the Final Four, which the Illini last visited in 1988. Illinois returns most of the key pieces from a team that went 26-6 last season and was ranked No. 10 in the final coaches’ poll. Laura DeBruler, a 2009 first-team All-American, is back for her final season needing merely 94 kills to become the UI’s all-time career leader. Fellow senior Johannah Bangert, despite her modest height (6-foot-1) for a middle blocker, is a two-time national leader in blocks per set. Senior setter Hillary Haen, a 2009 honorable mention All-American, ranked 16th in the nation in assists per set in 2009. Junior Michelle Bartsch enters her third season as a starter at right-side hitter, where she also earned honorable-mention All-America honors last season. Several newcomers are expected to make an immediate impact, particularly junior Colleen Ward, a transfer from Florida and a 2009 All-Southeastern Conference second-teamer.
Former Olympian Justin Spring is now one year into his tenure as associate head coach at his alma mater. If there were any transitional pains last season, they weren’t apparent. The former four-time NCAA champion guided his Illini to their second straight Big Ten title (this time without sharing) and fourth place at the NCAA Championships. Luke Stannard — the Nissen-Emery Award winner as the nation’s top senior — and fellow All-American have graduated, but there’s plenty of remaining talent on the roster. Start with former NCAA champions Paul Ruggeri and Daniel Ribeiro, returning for their final seasons. They’ll be joined by 2010 All-Americans Chad Wiest, Anthony Sacramento and Tyler Mizoguchi. Add in Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Year Yoshi Mori and Big Ten parallel bars champ C.J. Padera, and Spring’s second Illini team has every reason to set the bar high in 2011.