Top 10 East Central Illinois sports moments of 2016

Top 10 East Central Illinois sports moments of 2016

Let’s be clear: The Chicago Cubs winning their first World Series in 108 years was one of the top sports stories of 2016 — No. 1 on The Associated Press’ list. But what about memorable moments to come out of East Central Illinois in a calendar year that will close once the clock hits midnight Saturday? Here are our 10 selections:

1. Welcome to town
Josh Whitman lifted up the Illinois fan base first with the UI hiring him in mid-February as the school’s new athletic director. It helped matters, too, that the former Illinois tight end addressed fans early with a welcome letter that included the now-notable #WeWillWin hashtag (although the number of wins isn’t quite what UI supporters would like in the two major sports). The 38-year-old then really energized not only folks in Champaign-Urbana but those across the country, with his surprise hiring of former NFL coach Lovie Smith on March 7, which came two days after he abruptly fired Bill Cubit. The honeymoon phase is still in full effect for Whitman and Smith, even with the Illinois football team Smith leads finishing a disappointing 3-9 last season. Their time at Illinois will be forever linked, and Whitman is betting big that Smith and his $21 million contract can turn around a football program that hasn’t produced a winning season in five years.

2. Long-awaited champion
The wait for a boys’ basketball state title at St. Joseph-Ogden came to an end the night of March 12 at Carver Arena in downtown Peoria. With a large SJ-O contingent on hand, the Spartans (above) made school history by defeating Rockridge 61-43 to win the Class 2A state-championship game. Spurred on by 20 points from wing Brandon Trimble and 14 points, six rebounds and five assists from point guard Jake Pence, the Spartans also received a lift off the bench from Garrett Grimsley, who drained three three-pointers in the second quarter to give the Spartans the lead for good. The victory capped a late-season spurt by SJ-O, which finished 24-9 and ended the season on a 10-game winning streak after entering February with an 11-7 record. The Spartans’ postseason push gave Champaign County its first boys’ basketball state champion since Centennial won the 3A state title in 2009.

3. Five-star rating
The back-slapping hug John Groce and Whitman exchanged on July 11 wasn’t because either of them aced a hole during Kendall Gill’s golf outing in Savoy to support the Cunningham Children’s Home. Rather, it was because Groce had just received an oral commitment from the state’s most highly touted prospect, East St. Louis big man Jeremiah Tilmon, a legitimate five-star talent who could very well start when he arrives at Illinois. Tilmon’s commitment — even with his subsequent delay in signing his letter of intent a week later than Javon Pickett, Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams, three other 2017 recruits Illinois landed in Groce’s best class since he arrived at Illinois in 2012 — signified a huge leap forward after several agonizing misses for Groce and his staff.

4. Hard times on, off the hardwood
While Whitman made waves on the football front in his first month on the job, he was trying to tamper down the turmoil coming from the Illinois men’s basketball program. With three players getting arrested — Leron Black, Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate — in the span of a month, it didn’t help the program’s public perception on a national stage. Whitman came out in support of Groce twice once the 2015-16 season ended in disappointing fashion on the court. Illinois finished 15-19 and missed out on the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive season, a feat the tradition-rich program hadn’t dealt with since the late 1970s. Black received a six-game suspension to start the 2016-17 season for pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault and Tate’s charges of alleged domestic battery were dismissed, but Nunn wasn’t so fortunate. The shooting guard pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery, admitting he hit a woman, and was ultimately dismissed from the program. Then in October, former Illini great Dee Brown abruptly resigned from his job as director of player development and alumni relations after only five months, citing personal reasons.

5. Change at the top
Bill Cubit became the permanent Illinois football coach hours before the Illini played their final regular-season game in 2015 and was set on coaching Illinois during the 2016 season. He even signed a recruiting class in February, despite some concerns about the two-year contract Illinois extended to him. But the former Illinois offensive coordinator never coached a game for the Illini in 2016, with Whitman pulling a surprise and firing Cubit on the first Saturday in March. By the time Smith coached Illinois in its season opener against Murray State six months later, he became the third different coach to lead the Illini in their last three season openers. The one who did in 2014? Tim Beckman, who was fired a week before the 2015 season began for mistreatment of players. He reached a $250,000 settlement with the UI in mid-April, preventing possible future litigation.

6. Best of Orange and Blue
Transition and turmoil were two key buzzwords related to the revenue sports at Illinois. Triumphant could be used to describe Illinois wrestler Isaiah Martinez and Illinois men’s gymnast Brandon Ngai. Martinez won his second consecutive NCAA title at 157 pounds, and Ngai won an NCAA title in the pommel horse.

7. Best of the Cobras
Across town in Champaign, Parkland experienced tremendous success at the NJCAA Division II national level. The men’s basketball team placed sixth, while the volleyball team won its second consecutive national title. Not to be outdone by the success of Cliff Hastings’ program on the volleyball court, the Parkland men’s and women’s soccer teams won Region 24 titles and advanced to national tournaments as well. Oh, and former Parkland baseball player Kevin Kiermaier won a second consecutive Gold Glove patrolling the outfield for the Tampa Bay Rays.

8. Best of local preps
State champions were crowned at a fast and furious pace among local high schools the past 364 days, teamwise and individually. First up, Champaign Central swimmer Payton Woods won a state title in the 50-yard freestyle in late February before the St. Joseph-Ogden and LeRoy boys’ basketball teams won state titles on the same day in mid-March at Carver Arena in downtown Peoria, the first such titles for those respective programs. On the blue track at O’Brien Stadium in Charleston in May, the Salt Fork girls’ track and field team won a Class 1A state title, with Storm individual standout Jenny Kimbro claiming state titles in the 100-meter hurdles, 300 hurdles and long jump. Uni High’s Arielle Summitt took first in the 800 at the 1A state meet, while the 400 girls’ relay team from SJ-O also captured a 1A state title. A week later at the boys’ track and field state meet, Oakwood’s Jon Davis capped his stellar prep career with 1A state titles in the 1,600 and 3,200, Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley’s Nick Schultz won a 1A state title in the long jump and Georgetown-Ridge Farm/Chrisman’s Tyler Owen won a 1A state title in the high jump. In November, Mahomet-Seymour boys’ cross-country put forth one of the best races ever at the state meet to claim the 2A team title, while earlier on the same day, SJ-O girls’ cross-country captured a 1A team state title. The Saturday before Thanksgiving brought more recognition and hardware to East Central Illinois when Uni High swimmer Ema Rajic collected state titles in the 100 breaststroke and the 200 individual medley, shattering previous state-record times in the process. 

9. Worldwide success
Tatyana McFadden has turned herself into a household name. The UI graduate student turned Paralympic star kept her success at the forefront during the Rio Paralympics in September, winning six medals (four gold, two silver) during her time in Brazil. This came while she completed another repeat performance on the marathon circuit in 2016, winning marathons in Boston, London, Chicago and New York for the fourth consecutive year. Champaign native Nichole Millage added to her accomplished Paralympic career by winning gold as part of the U.S. sitting volleyball team in Rio, and current Illinois women’s track and field hurdler Pedrya Seymour qualified for the finals in the 100 hurdles, a surprising finish for a relative newcomer to the sport. And not to be outdone, UI men’s golf alum Thomas Pieters continued to see his stock rise — much like that of the program he played for in college — when he competed with Europe at the Ryder Cup and flourished.

10. She’s loving it
Before 2016 arrived, Champaign could tout one McDonald’s All-American. Now the number is two. St. Thomas More product Tori McCoy received an invite to the prestigious all-star game in mid-January, becoming the first girls’ basketball player from Champaign to earn the honor since the girls’ game started in 2002. McCoy, now a true freshman at Ohio State, became the first Champaign native selected for this game since Centennial graduate Roger McClendon played in the boys’ game in 1984. McCoy added to her accomplishments by later playing in the Jordan Brand Classic, another national all-star game featuring some of the most talented high school girls’ basketball players in the country.

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