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What the watch
Three Illini events to keep an eye on this weekend:
7 p.m. today vs. Purdue
At Huff Hall
Coming off an ugly 35-point loss to No. 3 Ohio State, the No. 21 Illini look to get back on track in their final match before the Big Ten Championships. Illinois (8-7, 3-4 Big Ten) needs a win to avoid its first losing Big Ten dual-meet record since the 1995-96 season.
Jim Heffernan's guys will face a No. 23 Purdue team that has lost six straight Big Ten duals. The Boilermakers (10-10, 1-6 Big Ten) began the season 10-4.
Matchups of particular interest include the 174-pound bout between No. 13 Jordan Blanton of Illinois and No. 6 Luke Manuel. The Purdue sophomore (35-2, 4-0) leads the nation in victories and earlier this season eliminated Blanton (17-5, 5-2) from the Midlands Championships at Evanston in a 5-4 battle.
Ranked wrestlers also will square off at 197, where No. 9 Patrick Bond (18-10, 4-2) of Illinois faces No. 15 Logan Brown (28-9, 4-3).
At 141, Purdue is listing Juan Archuleta as one of three possible entrants against No. 14 Ryan Prater (12-7, 3-3). Archuleta last competed on Jan. 31, when he beat No. 4 Mike Thorn of Minnesota for his fourth win against a ranked opponent. Last season, Prater scored a 13-4 major decision against Archuleta in the Las Vegas Invitational.
Admission is free for a meet the UI promotions folks are billing as the The Great Escape. There's reason to show up early. The first 1,000 fans will receive free food.
Fri.-Sun at Stanford Nike Invitational
At Palo Alto, Calif.
At 5-0, the Illini are off to their best since 2003, when they opened 6-0. If Illinois returns from this six-team tournament still undefeated, Terri Sullivan's team just might crack the national Top 25. Certainly, victories against No. 11 Stanford (4-1) and No. 17 Fresno State (6-0) would get the voters' attention.
The Illini, who received votes in the current USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association poll, play the first of five games this weekend at noon Friday against Sacramento State. At 4:30 Friday, Illinois faces a Stanford team which has made 12 straight NCAA tournament appearances. The Cardinal roster includes two members of the 2009 USA Women's National Team: outfielder Alissa Haber and shortstop Ashley Hansen.
The Illini have dominated so far, outscoring opponents 43-6 while hitting .378 and allowing five earned runs in 30 innings. None of those foes, however, was ranked or received votes in the latest coaches' poll.
Noon Saturday vs Notre Dame
At South Bend, Ind.
Fourth-year Illini coach Michelle Dasso still is looking for her first win against her alma mater. Dasso's 29th-ranked team still is looking for an elusive signature victory. Here's a chance for Illinois to accomplish both when it visits the No. 15 Irish for a nonconference dual meet.
All of the Illini's losses in a 3-4 start have come against teams currently ranked between 13th and 24th (new rankings will be released today). Three of those defeats were by 4-3 margins, including a one-point setback on No. 13 Tennessee's home court.
"We've been so close all year," Dasso said. "We're right there. It's obviously challenging to beat the top teams in the country, but I truly feel that we have the ability and that we will get there. It's just a matter of time."
Then she added: "I would love for it to be against my alma mater."
Since taking the UI reins, Dasso is 0-3 against the Irish (5-1). Notre Dame's top player is 30th-ranked Kristy Frilling (12-3), who went 3-1 in singles at the NCAA Championships last year as a freshman.
If, as expected, Dasso sticks with Rachael White at No. 1 singles against the Irish, the Illini freshman will face her fourth Top 30 opponent this season. White, a former prep All-American, is 2-5 at No. 1 singles but two of those losses went three sets and another was decided in a second-set tiebreaker.
Dasso admits it's a tall order for any freshman to play at the top of the lineup, but she is confident the big-hitting White is up to the challenge.
"We're trying to remind her she hasn't (yet) played a freshman at the top spot," Dasso said. "She's challenging these girls in three sets that are top of the country. So we keep trying to remind her of all the good things she has going for her.
"She's gaining that experience, and down the road it's really going to help her."
Illini of the week
Illini fans have come to expect the remarkable from this two-time NCAA champion. Bizzarri did it again Saturday, tying a 22-year-old school record in the mile while competing in the event for the first time this season. Her winning time of 4 minutes, 40.68 seconds at the Tyson Invitational in Fayetteville, Ark., matched the mark set by Melissa Straza in 1988 (see The List, below). The Mason, Ohio, native currently ranks eighth among Division I milers. Bizzarri, who provisionally qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships in the event, now owns or shares UI records in four indoor events. The others are the 3,000 meters, 5,000 and as a member of the distance medley relay.
News & Views
Swimmers seek climb
The Illini women's swimming and diving team will look to make strides in the Big Ten Championships after finishing last in the 11-team meet each of the past two years. The four-day meet began Wednesday at West Lafayette, Ind.
"We don't like being in last place," Illinois coach Sue Novitsky said.
This figures to be one of the meet's strongest fields in years, with seven conference teams ranked in the coaches' Top 25 poll.
"We're in one of the top three conferences in the country," Novitsky said. "(The Big Ten is) very fast and deep, but we still need to go in with confidence and keep the focus on ourselves. We can't worry about what everyone is ranked. Everyone still has to race and compete."
The Illini's top hopefuls include sophomore sprint freestyler Kristen Manias, who has racked up a team-high seven first-place finishes this season. Senior Jen Ivarson enters with six wins and the team's top time in the 200-yard butterfly, while classmate CeCe Marizu owns five wins and the top UI clockings in the 100 and 200 backstrokes.
"We've kept getting faster as the year went along," Novitsky said. "Now it's a matter of just carrying momentum into this meet and having them stay relaxed and ready to peak."
The Illini remain without freshman Lauren Wismer, the school record-holder in the 1- and 3-meter dives. Wismer has not competed this semester due to a left shoulder injury, which is currently being treated through rehabilitation.
"She does meet with a specialist again soon to further discuss whether or not surgery is better or not," UI diving coach Chris Waters said. "Fortunately, it looks to be a very manageable injury, too, so we're just playing it wise and following doctor's orders to help get her stronger."
Former Illini shortstop Toby Gardenhire has received an invitation to spring training by the Minnesota Twins as a non-roster player. Gardenhire, the son of Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, played his senior season at the UI in 2005 after transferring from Southwest Missouri State. He has been in the Twins' minor league system since being drafted in the 41st round in 2005. A catcher-infielder, Gardenhire gives the Twins a replacement catcher in the absence of Jose Morales. Morales, the projected backup catcher, is expected to miss most of camp due to surgery on his right wrist.
Eddleman Award watch
(Winter Sports Edition)
Each week we'll rank our top three candidates for the 2009-10 Dike Eddleman Award, which annually goes to the top male and female athletes at the University of Illinois.
1. Paul Ruggeri, gymnastics. Junior earned his fifth career Big Ten Gymnast of the Week award.
2. John Dergo, wrestling. Senior 184-pounder enters final home meet with 16-match win streak.
3. Andrew Riley, track. Sophomore All-American tied school record in 60 meters at Arkansas meet.
1. Angela Bizzarri, track. Senior tied 22-year-old school record in mile at Arkansas meet.
2. Allison Buckley, gymnastics. Junior's 34 career event titles ties for fourth on Illini charts.
3. Jenna Smith, basketball. Thirteenth Big Ten player and second Illini with 2,000 career points.
Senior Angela Bizzarri tied a 22-year-old Illini women's track record in the mile run on Saturday. The all-time top five UI performances:
NAME TIME YEAR
Angela Bizzarri 4:40.68 2010
Melissa Straza 4:40.68 1988
Julie Lantis 4:40.91 1983
Julie Lantis 4:41.07 1984
Laura Simmering 4:41.75 1992