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CHAMPAIGN – If you haven't seen Laura DeBruler, the slam-bang kill-shot artist from Downers Grove, you'll get your last chance Friday and maybe Saturday at Huff Hall.
There are young women who hover above the volleyball net, who reject jams with their length and coverage. That's not DeBruler. She is 5-foot-11, a modest size by collegiate frontline standards, and a coordinated athlete whether flying off the back line or at the net.
She may be the best female athlete on the UI campus, a decision that will be made this spring when she is compared with distance running whiz Angela Bizzarri, the reigning Eddleman Award winner, and others like basketball center Jenna Smith. There'll undoubtedly be others who'll emerge like cager Mike Davis on the men's side, but for this weekend at home, DeBruler is spotlighted in Illinois' showdown against Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the NCAA opener (7 p.m. Friday). She led the Big Ten in kills with 541, was three-time Big Ten Player of the Week and shared honors with Michelle Bartsch and Kylie McCulley in 3-0 sweeps of Wisconsin and Northwestern last week to cap a 24-7 regular season.
This NCAA tournament is coach Don Hardin's Illini swan song, but it won't mark the end of his impact on UI volleyball. Working closely with his likely successor, Kevin Hambly, Hardin recently signed exceptional recruits Jessica Jendryk and Erin Johnson who – this is a dangerous comparison – are rated as good or better than DeBruler right now. And a superb follow-up class already is lined up.
Many teams on rise
From all indications, Illini women's athletics is on the rise. OK, not all of them. The golf team added a quality player from Florida, Crystal Smith, but still has a mountain to climb. Sue Novitsky's swimmers and divers, 11th in the Big Ten last winter, showed improvement with a 4-0 fall record as they enter this week's event at Miami (Ohio).
Jolette Law's cagers probably will drop their fifth straight to Virginia tonight at the Assembly Hall, and it stacks up as a long campaign, but she has lined up the No. 2 recruiting class in the country – an unprecedented accomplishment here – and is going to the wire for 6-5 Texan Kelsey Bone, one of the top two preps in the country. Those who decry the poorly attended environment at the spacious Assembly Hall may feel differently if these talented athletes can uplift the program. Illinois may be on the verge of a new experience, that of fielding high-level volleyball and basketball teams at the same time.
Elsewhere, here's how the women's sports stack up:
Soccer: Janet Rayfield's gang reached the NCAA round of 16, posting nine shutouts this past season. Goalkeeper Alexandra Kapicka will return, and the Illini are building a winning tradition in soccer.
Cross-country: Bizzarri, a junior, led Illinois to a 10th-place finish in the NCAA this fall, and coach Jeremy Rasmussen returns four of the top five runners, including freshman Kristin Suther- land.
Gymnastics: The Big Ten runner-up finish last season was the UI's highest since 1990. Allison Buckley was Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and Julie Crall and Nicole Cowart are also back.
Softball: Coach Terri Sullivan took a hit with the graduation of sluggers Angelena Mexicano and Shanna Diller, but the name of the game is pitching, and Georgia newcomer Monica Perry is the hard-throwing key. She looked good in a 7-2 fall season, and she has a solid senior catcher in Lana Armstrong. Everyone from Detroit to Washington, D.C., is looking for a better battery, and maybe Sullivan has one.
Tennis: They're not as strong as their male counterparts, but sophomore Leigh Finnegan was all-tourney in the Midwest Blast here last month, and they hope to improve on their fourth-place Big Ten finish last spring.
Track and field: The last women's Big Ten title came outdoors in 2007. Coach Gary Winckler is gone, along with several key performers, so Tonja Buford-Bailey is obliged to rebuild. She has Sutherland among nine solid newcomers.
Reason for hope
Basketball and volleyball are the main women's draws, but those two are projected to bring in only about $50,000 apiece in gate receipts in 2008-09, and the other eight sports are mere sprinklings in an annual athletic budget that has swelled to $62.8 million. These 10 sports are the beneficiaries of men's receipts, Big Ten and NCAA distributions, TV income including the Big Ten Network and the various streams that have been developed.
Women's basketball stacks up as the area where the most financial improvement could be made.
But face it, women's sports carry only a small share of the overall burden. And they haven't, in the recent past, produced the level of UI success that is warranted by their full scholarships, unlimited travel and facilities.
Some female leaders at the national level have stated they don't want to get into the same recruiting rat race as their male counterparts. But if the Illini don't engage fully in that rat race, if they don't scour the summer markets for the best golfers and softball pitchers, if they aren't active with the volleyball and tennis clubs, they aren't going to keep pace.
It must be said that Illinois has lingered. Of 10 women's sports, only track and field has produced Big Ten regular season titles since 1990, and there have been no serious NCAA runs.
Illinois needs to do better. Watch volleyball. Something could be happening there.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.