Tate: A spring checkup

Northwestern scored zero points in three Big Ten Outdoor track and field championships in the early-80s, and dropped the sport in 1988. Only the ghosts of past runners, jumpers, etc., traipse around Evanston.

And only the shadows of Herb McKenley and Craig Virgin can be seen in outdoor meets at the University of Illinois. It's too windy. The meets are too long. Athletes can better post quality times elsewhere. Scoring the team competition is passe ... or irrelevant.

Over time we've watched the dwindling departure of a sport that once ruled the spring, that once drew crowds for stirring duals with Michigan and Southern Illinois, not to mention 1977 and 1979 NCAA championship events on the Memorial Stadium track.

The 2012 Illini men and women competed in the Orange and Blue Invitational at the UI Armory Feb. 4, and haven't been seen since. They disappeared. Nor will they reappear.

The squads are split up in California and Arkansas this weekend, and will participate in the Drake Relays next weekend as a final tuneup for the Big Ten Outdoor in Madison, Wis., May 11-13.

Not a single outdoor meet. No chance for the locals to watch arguably the school's premier senior athlete, hurdler Andrew Riley. This Jamaica speedster is special. He won the Big Ten Indoor 60 meters and 60 hurdles, and took second in the NCAA 60-meter dash after falling out of rhythm and taking fourth in the 60 hurdles ... a blink-and-you'll-miss-it event he won as a junior.

So the UI track sits idle on weekends while all those athletes being prepared by coaches Mike Turk and Tonja Buford-Bailey (her gals came in fourth in the Big Ten Indoor) travel to warmer, calmer climates.

As athletic director Mike Thomas maps out his long-range strategy, maybe he should plan to rent out the track to anyone interested in using it.

A step back

Illini fans will look fondly on the spring of 2011 when Mike Small's third straight Big Ten golf champions tied for fifth in the NCAA championships, and Dan Hartleb's Comeback Kids ruled Big Ten baseball and reached the NCAA Regional finals.

We're talking "outdoors" here. Yes, Justin Spring's gymnasts are still busy. They captured their fourth consecutive Big Ten title and, with senior Paul Ruggeri and freshman C.J. Maestas in top form, began competition Thursday night in the NCAA championships in Norman, Okla.

Generally speaking, the 2012 outdoor teams aren't quite as strong as last year:

Baseball:

A club that won 18 of its last 24 games can't replace the eight-win efforts of then-seniors John Anderson and Chris Pack, and sorely misses lefty Corey Kimes. Then too, Hartleb didn't get ailing fireballer Bryan Roberts back from arm surgery. It's all about pitching, and no team can win without it. That was lacking from the beginning in February when the Illini gave up 13 runs to Notre Dame and Gonzaga. It has been sporadic throughout in allowing 5 1/2 runs per game and giving up more hits than innings pitched. In carrying a 3-6 Big Ten audit against Ohio State here tonight, the Illini need to catch fire to finish among the top six permitted in the Big Ten tournament.

Men's golf:

Thomas Pieters and Luke Guthrie are shooting roughly par in averaging about 71 strokes this spring, and Mason Jacobs is close. Small's concerns are with the fourth and fifth slots — too bad Clayton Parkhill doesn't have another year — as the Illini seek a four-peat in the Big Ten meet at French Lick, Ind., next weekend. Iowa, at No. 25, is the only Big Ten team currently ranked, with Illinois, Indiana and Purdue drawing votes in the 40s.

Men's tennis:

Brad Dancer squad is hanging on at No. 20 despite losing 13 of 14 sets against Kentucky and Ohio State last week. At 7-2 in the Big Ten, they have a reasonable shot at reaching the finals against the Buckeyes, who are ranked No. 3 and are as dominant in the conference as Illinois was under Craig Tiley. These Illini are led by seniors Dennis Nevolo and Roy Kalmanovich, whose absence will be felt when the Illini attempt to qualify for the 2013 NCAA championships on this campus.

Softball:

Right-hander Pepper Gay is 50-26 for her career, but a lack of hitting has contributed to a lost season for Terri Sullivan's team. They're 19-20 overall and 3-9 in the Big Ten as they host a strong Purdue club (9-2, behind only Michigan, 11-1) Saturday and Sunday. Showing a 45-8 record as recently as 2010, this rivals Sullivan's weakest club since he initiated softball here with a 13-17 mark in 2000.

Women's golf:

It's been a long, hard pull for coach Renee Slone, but four steady seniors averaging between 73.5 and 76.3 strokes this spring have turned this into the best Illini women's golf team in years. Credit Hailey Koschmann, Samantha Sloan, Katelin Dilger and Nora Lucas. Coming off consecutive ninth-place finishes in the Big Ten meet, the Illini still face an uphill battle against conference leaders Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue and Northwestern at French Lick.

Women's tennis:

Michelle Dasso's athletes have long trailed the UI men in terms of recognition, but have pulled alongside this season with sophomore Allison Falkin and freshman Melissa Kopinski playing 1-2. The Big Ten confirmed them at No. 21 this week, still behind Northwestern, Michigan and Nebraska, and ahead of challengers Purdue, Minnesota and Indiana.

The 6-2 conference record projects the team as highly competitive in the Big Ten showdown.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com

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Bwp 5P wrote on April 20, 2012 at 1:04 pm

I'm shocked that Moonpie or DoubtingThomas have NOT commented yet!

Brownshoe wrote on April 21, 2012 at 1:04 am

It must be idiots' day off.