Illini Year in Review: Grading the programs

Illini Year in Review: Grading the programs

Men's gymnastics: A

Why an A: The Illini won what had been an elusive Big Ten title then followed it up with an individual NCAA champ (Alex Diab on rings) and a third-place national finish as a team.

High point: Illinois snapped a three-year streak of runner-up finishes at the Big Ten championships with its 28th title in program history. Diab (rings) and Chandler Eggleston (high bar) also won individual conference titles.

Low point: Multiple falls from the front half of the lineup plagued the Illini in their fourth-place finish at the International Collegiate Challenge at Stanford.

Big Ten finish: 1st

 

Women's tennis: A

Why an A: Illinois made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the third time in program history (2003 and 2009 are the others) and tied the program record for single-season wins with 22.

High point: A 4-3 victory against No. 10 Wake Forest in late February to win the Blue Gray National Tennis Classic in Montgomery, Ala., marked the Illini's top win of the year.

Low point: A 4-0 loss at No. 24 Michigan in early April was the only time Illinois was swept in Big Ten play and one of two for the season after a 4-0 loss to then-No. 5 North Carolina in January.

Big Ten finish: 3rd

 

Men's golf: A-

Why an A-: Another year, another Big Ten title. But when the bar is set at least at a Final Four appearance, anything less can be seen as somewhat disappointing.

High point: The Illini claimed their fourth straight Big Ten title — with Nick Hardy claiming the individual championship — and beat runner-up Ohio State by 15 strokes.

Low point: Dylan Meyer finished strong as an individual at the NCAA championships, tying for fourth, but Illinois missed out on match play for the first time in four years with an 11th-place finish.

Big Ten finish: 1st

 

Women's golf: A-

Why an A-: Consistently ranked throughout the spring season, Illinois finished the year at No. 20 and just a single stroke shy of advancing to the NCAA championship for the first time in program history with a seventh-place regional finish.

High point: A program record for single-round team score (7-under 281) helped Illinois climb into a tie for second at the Big Ten championships — the best finish for the program since the 1976 season. Grace Park, Chayanid Prapassarangkul and Bing Singhsumalee all tied for eighth place individually.

Low point: Three tournament titles stand out in contrast to Illinois' ninth-place finish at the Westbrook Spring Invitational in the first event of the spring season. A 1-over par final round as a team hurt with the rest of the field shooting well under par.

Big Ten finish: T-2nd

 

Men's tennis: A-

Why an A-: The Illini made their 23rd straight NCAA tournament appearance this spring and broke through into the NCAA quarterfinals for the first time since 2007 and seventh time overall in program history.

High point: Illinois' top win of the season came in the Sweet 16 with a 4-0 victory of No. 8 TCU. It was the third sweep for the Illini in the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament.

Low point: Another Big Ten championships match appearance ended in a 4-0 sweep to then-No. 3 ranked Ohio State — the same result from Illinois' regular-season loss to the Buckeyes.

Big Ten finish: 2nd

 

Volleyball: A-

Why an A-: Illinois' absence from the Sweet 16 was a brief one. The Illini were back above .500 in the Big Ten and advanced past the second round of the NCAA tournament in Chris Tamas' first season.

High point: That Sweet 16 run only happened with an upset of No. 8 seed Washington in Seattle. Jacqueline Quade, Megan Cooney and Beth Prince were all in double figures for kills, and the Illini took down the Huskies in five sets.

Low point: The top quarter of the Big Ten still gave Illinois troubles. Penn State defeated the Illini twice with matching 3-0 sweeps in both State College and Champaign.

Big Ten finish: 6th

Baseball: B+

Why a B+: Young teams resulted in an expected dip in the two seasons after the 2015 super regional run. The development of that youth paid off this spring, as Illinois posted a 10-win improvement and jumped six spots in the Big Ten from 2017.

High point: The Illini beat a trio of top 25 teams, with the best coming in a 5-3 come-from-behind win against then No. 11 UCLA that helped Illinois claim the DQ Classic/Pac-12 vs. Big Ten Challenge at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Low point: Losses to Valparaiso, Grand Canyon and Bradley — and their sketchy respective RPI rankings — in late April were as responsible for Illinois missing out on the NCAA tournament as any other reason.

Big Ten finish: 4th

 

Men's cross-country: B

Why a B: Illinois fared better in the Big Ten and was ranked a program-best 16th nationally in October, but couldn't repeat its NCAA championship appearance from the 2016 season.

High point: The Illini jumped two spots in the Big Ten championships to fourth — tied for the second-best finish under coach Jake Stewart — by placing three runners in the top 15. Jon Davis (ninth place) and Jesse Reiser (13th) both earned All-Big Ten honors

Low point: Illinois won its first two meets of the season and placed in the top in four others. The outlier was a 28th place finish (out of 35 teams) at the Ed Nuttycombe Invite. Davis finished sixth in the loaded field, but no other Illinois runner was in the top 130.

Big Ten finish: 4th

 

Softball: B-

Why a B-: Tyra Perry set the bar high by coaching Illinois to the NCAA tournament in her first two seasons. The Illini ended up on the wrong side of the bubble this spring with a strength of schedule not quite strong enough despite 37 wins.

High point: A three-game sweep of Iowa highlighted an eight-game winning streak in April that stood as the Illini's longest of the season.

Low point: Every game late in the season mattered as Illinois tried to build its NCAA tournament résumé. A late April loss to Penn State (RPI of 226) after beating the Nittany Lions 21-8 combined in the previous two games didn't help.

Big Ten finish: 6th

 

Wrestling: B-

Why a B-: All-American honors for Isaiah Martinez and Emery Parker marked the fourth consecutive season — and seven of the last eight — with multiple honorees for the Illini, but they still struggled to break into the top tier in the Big Ten.

High point: Illinois posted its lone top-25 win of the season with a 23-12 victory against No. 19 Rutgers. Kyle Langenderfer upset nationally ranked John Van Brill, and the win was the Illini's 11th straight at Huff Hall.

Low point: Martinez might have won a fourth straight Big Ten title, but the team finish was disappointing with just three more Illini making the podium with top-five finishes as they finished 102 points behind champions Ohio State.

Big Ten finish: 8th

 

Men's track and field: C+

Why a C+: The first season of a combined track program saw the Illini men take a slight dip in Big Ten competition despite some positive results throughout the season.

High point: The Illini came away from the NCAA outdoor championships with more than double the All-American honors they racked up in the spring. David Kendziera finished second (110 hurdles) and third (400 hurdles) to end his Illinois career.

Low point: Despite a Big Ten high jump title from Jonathan Wells, Illinois ended up beating just one other team — Maryland — and finished 71 points behind Big Ten outdoor champions Ohio State.

Big Ten finish: 8th (indoor) and 12th (outdoor)

 

Women's gymnastics: C+

Why a C+: Kim Landrus' departure for North Carolina State necessitated a coaching change, but Nadalie Walsh's first season saw Illinois in the same spot — outside the NCAA championship field for a fourth straight season.

High point: The Illini scored a season high 196.850 points and won the B1G Five meet in its final warm-up for the Big Ten championships, with sophomore Rae Balthazor winning the bars, beam and all-around titles.

Low point: Fresh off a win in a quad meet at Rutgers in its season opener, Illinois dropped a dual with Michigan at Huff Hall on Jan. 19 with the Illini scoring what turned out to be a season-low 194.325 points.

Big Ten finish: 3rd

 

Men's basketball: D

Why a D: Illinois finished in the bottom four of the Big Ten again, missed the NCAA tournament for a fifth straight season and — through a quirk of the schedule — was done playing before March even hit.

High point: The Illini entered the new year with two straight victories, including a Braggin' Rights win against Missouri. They only matched that streak once more the rest of the season.

Low point: An early start to Big Ten play the first weekend of December saw Illinois drop a pair of overtime games to Northwestern and Maryland. They were both games the Illini had won before a series of late errors at the end of regulation.

Big Ten finish: 12th

 

Women's cross-country: D

Why a D: The restructured combined track and cross country team saw men's coach Jake Stewart and new assistant Sarah Haveman take over the women's program, which relied heavily on two veterans to lead a nine-strong freshman class with several regulars in the lineup.

High point: The Illini's lone victory came in their first meet of the season. Freshman Rebecca Craddock finished third in her first collegiate race and would score as Illinois' top runner in every other race throughout the fall.

Low point: Five true freshmen were in the Illinois lineup and earned tremendous early experience at the Big Ten championships. The results, however, weren't there in late October in Bloomington, Ind. Craddock was the only Illini in the top 50, and only Rutgers had a worse day as a team.

Big Ten finish: 13th

 

Women's track and field: D

Why a D: Illinois sent four individuals and a relay team to the NCAA west regional, but none of them advanced to the NCAA championship — a second straight season the Illini were shut out of the pinnacle event of the outdoor track season.

High point: The indoor season was significantly more fruitful for the Illini than once they headed outdoors. Illinois won a pair of home meets at the Armory and also put together a fourth-place finish at the Rod McCravy Memorial in Lexington, Ky.

Low point: After finishing third at the Drake Relays on April 28 — with the sprint relay team shining — the Illini finished 12th at the Big Ten championships two weeks later despite a fourth-place finish from Nicole Choquette in the 800-meter run.

Big Ten finish: 10th (indoor) and 12th (outdoor)

 

Soccer: D

Why a D: Last fall's five-win season was Janet Rayfield's worst in her 16-year career and stands as the worst in the program's 21-year history.

High point: A 3-1 victory against Indiana on Oct. 1 was one of two Big Ten victories and the goals from Kara Marbury (two) and Kelly Maday accounted for nearly of the quarter of the Illini's offensive production for the season. They scored just 13 goals in 19 matches.

Low point: The Illini were on the wrong end of a 4-0 blowout at home to No. 23 Minnesota on Oct. 15, as the Gophers got 16 shots to Illinois' seven.

Big Ten finish: 13th

 

Swimming and diving: D

Why a D: Illinois struggled again this winter and didn't rack up as many dual-meet wins as it did a season prior. The Illini aren't at the very bottom of the Big Ten, but it's not far off.

High point: The final home meet of the season saw Illinois pick up its second straight victory in a multi-team event. The Illini took down Butler, Youngstown State and Olivet Nazarene in its annual Splash Bash, winning 10 of 13 events. Samantha Stratford won the 200 individual medley, 200 butterfly and swam on the Illini's first-place 400 medley relay team.

Low point: The Illini finished 12th at the Big Ten championships for the fifth straight year. The biggest highlight was junior diver Ling Kuhn's eighth-place finish and school record in platform diving.

Big Ten finish: 12th

 

Football: D-

Why a D-: Illinois took a step back in Lovie Smith's second season, going 2-10 overall and winless in the Big Ten. It was the second 0-fer in the conference in six seasons, and first time ever Illinois went 0-9 in league play.

High point: Mikey Dudek scored his first touchdown since 2014 and freshman running back Mike Epstein scored a pair in his Illini debut, as Illinois topped Ball State 24-21 in the season opener.

Low point: Northwestern put a fitting capper on a disappointment of a season, holding on to the Land of Lincoln Trophy with a 42-7 win — a victory that saw the Wildcats score 42 unanswered points.

Big Ten finish: 7th, West

 

Women's basketball: D-

Why a D-: The first season of the Nancy Fahey era ended with an 18-game losing streak, which included an 0-16 mark in Big Ten play. The nine-win season was also a third straight and fourth in five seasons.

High point: Three straight wins in early December against Memphis, Indiana State and Detroit Mercy was Illinois' best stretch of the season, and the Illini scored a season-high 81 points against the Sycamores.

Low point: Illinois was held to just four points in the third quarter of its 86-42 loss at Michigan — the widest margin of defeat of the season at 44 points. the Illini lost 10 of 16 Big Ten games by double figures.

Big Ten finish: 14th