Tate: Watch out for these athletes

Tate: Watch out for these athletes

Can spring be around the corner? The Champaign-Urbana temperature topped 60 degrees Thursday. Dan Hartleb's UI baseball team has a home game in 23 days. And Feb. 28, when the Big Ten tournament opens in New York City, could mark the end for Brad Underwood's first UI basketball season.

Almost overnight, the UI's other male teams become high-ranking targets instead of tailenders. This might not be a repeat of 2015 — when all four men's teams won Big Ten titles — but all four view themselves as 2018 contenders.

And each has an individual star poised to ascend the platform alongside 165-pound wrestler Isaiah Martinez as the UI's top male athlete in 2017-18. You'll see emphasis on the names like Dylan Meyer, David Kendziera, Aleks Vukic and Joey Gerber as you read forward. In fact, the first three names already rank with all-time Illini greats in their specialties.

Meyer, Hardy lead the way

Mike Small's golfers have won eight of nine Big Ten titles, and they return five members — Meyer, Nick Hardy, Michael Feagles, Bryan Baumgarten and Giovanni Tadiotto — from the unit that reached the NCAA Final Four last year.

Seniors Meyer and Hardy could be the nation's leading 1-2 punch, and Meyer is the only Big Ten golfer among 27 chosen on the prestigious Ben Hogan watch list.

Meyer was brilliant in winning four matches last weekend, while Hardy won two and halved two in otherwise disappointing Big Ten match play. Illinois finished sixth in losing close matches against Wisconsin and Indiana.

Expressing concern, Small said: "Expectations are very high here, and we have some big holes to fill, particularly with Edoardo Lipparelli turning pro. I felt a little bit of tension last weekend. We just need to relax and handle our emotions, and make the key shots when it matters. We are led by two of the best amateurs in the world (Meyer ranks No. 6)."

Kendziera shines

Believe track coach Mike Turk when he says Kendziera is "the most overlooked athlete on the campus."

At a school that produced four-time NCAA champion and Jamaican Olympic hurdler Andrew Riley, Kendziera ranks No. 2 on the Illini hurdles all-time list at 60, 110 and 400 meters. He is a six-time All-American, and was Big Ten Track Athlete of the Year in 2017. The fifth-year senior from Mt. Prospect also participated on the school's record-setting 1.600-meter relay unit.

"It is rare to see so many accomplishments," said Turk, in full preparations for next weekend's Big Ten Indoor at Geneva, Ohio.

The team won't be at full strength since jumper-hurdler Jonathan Wells is redshirting indoors (he long-jumped in Albuquerque on Saturday) and will join the team for the outdoor campaign.

In what is probably the last of the Orange and Blue Indoor events here Saturday, Turk clearly pointed a week hence, and pulled the crack distance medley team, anchored by sub-4-minute miler Jon Davis, from its scheduled NCAA-qualifying quest in South Bend.

Slow starters

Freshman Alex Brown was Big Ten Player of the Week before falling to UCLA's Keegan Smith in Friday's showdown of the top 16 tennis teams. The southpaw's booming serves are the talk of the Illini tennis team, but he is No. 3 in the lineup while the spotlight focuses on Aussie Aleks Vukic at No. 1.

As a junior in 2017, Vukic beat the nation's Nos. 1 and 2 netters in a string of 21 consecutive singles victories, was Big Ten Athlete of the Year and an All-American. He also won the pro singles event in the July Futures event here.

Like the team, which has dropped hard-fought matches to ranked Carolina, Stanford and UCLA squads, Vukic has found a demanding early schedule ultra-challenging (two singles losses). That said, the blistering exchanges with Stanford's Tom Fawcett eight days ago created an Illini classic, even as Vukic lost 6-3, 1-6, 7-6.

Can he attain last season's heights? Can he and fellow senior Aaron Hiltzik lead two freshmen and two sophomores in dumping Ohio State from the Big Ten's pinnacle? Such high goals are certainly the most difficult to attain.

Gerber firing bullets

Professional baseball loves flame throwers. And just as reliever Tyler Jay was the star of the 50-win team in 2015 (and No. 6 overall pick in the MLB draft), junior closer Joey Gerber could project as the UI's top MLB draftee in 2018 after fanning 43 batters in 33 innings last spring.

The trick for the team, of course, is mounting a lead for the 6-foot-4 Minnesotan to close.

"He did a good job for us last season, and he's been hitting 93 and 94 miles per hour," Hartleb said.

The starting rotation will be the key as Hartleb returns virtually a set lineup. The slick SS-2B duo of sophomores Ben Troike and Michael Massey helped Illinois finish No. 2 nationally in double plays per game last season. Houston transfer Zac Taylor, a Downers Grove product, has the speed to lead off and play center field as he joins Doran Turchin and All-Big Ten pick Jack Yalowitz in a powerhouse outfield.

Saturday's weather-delayed opener has been moved into a Sunday doubleheader in St. Louis, providing the first view of the team.

For the record, Big Ten coaches showed little Illini respect as they tabbed Indiana and defending champion Nebraska 1-2 in preseason voting, and did not include Illinois in the top six. Massey, Taylor and Yalowitz were named the top UI players.

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