Loren Tate: It will be tough to top this year
The new year leaves behind a whopper in 2013, with more fireworks possible when Indiana comes to the Farm on Tuesday.
As the year’s local sports stories go, these are my personal favorites, and why.
(1) Farm renovation — After years of promises, Mike Thomas ignited a $165 million operation covering three years of work on the former Assembly Hall. The costly premium seating, requiring the movement of thousands of season ticket-holders, has become the subject of intense discussion and concern.
(2) Cubit and Banks — Lacking a serious rushing game, Bill Cubit hooked up with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to produce 3,452 aerial yards, compared with 2,026 the previous year. That’s the most in 31 years and second in UI history to 1982, when Tony Eason led Mike White’s team to the Liberty Bowl. The Cubit story was matched in fan interest by the controversial decision to retain coordinator Tim Banks after a second season of porous defense.
(3) All aboard — In just a season and a half, John Groce has captured the imagination of Illini Nation, not only with heady bench direction but in spreading the UI recruiting wings. On a single evening, think of the positive PR he garnered by dedicating the Missouri win to departed seniors, honoring Lou Henson by wearing an orange jacket and handling Kendrick Nunn’s late-game defensive mistake as though it didn’t happen. Optimism among Illini Nation far outstrips the talent level.
(4) Spartan sparklers — St. Joseph-Ogden, producing the area’s most successful sports operation, rebounded from two early football losses to reach another IHSA Final Four. A 43-41 overtime loss to Stillman Valley takes its place among the great prep finals, featuring as it did a late, disputed non-fumble.
(1) Dreary finish — The dismal turnout for a chilly 37-34 football loss to Northwestern exemplified the frustration on the field and the disillusionment within Illini Nation. The despair at Memorial Stadium, which looked like a ghost town, was matched by those who didn’t show up.
(2) Double whammy — The combination of Curie’s Cliff Alexander rebuffing the Illini and point guard Quentin Snider switching to hometown Louisville served as a 1-2 gut punch on basketball Signing Day. While Alexander was a bigger story on TV, the loss of Snider may have hit Illinois harder.
(3) Hopes dashed — Volleyball expectations were building when Kevin Hambly’s team reached the NCAA regional at the Farm, but the Illini disappointed most of the 4,631 fans as they fell to a Purdue team that they had beaten 3-0 Nov. 16.
(1) Hoosiers shocked — Tyler Griffey unleashed a wild celebration when he laid it up on an out-of-bounds play to edge No. 1 Indiana 74-72. This stunner got the Illini moving after a 2-7 Big Ten start.
(2) Mizzou falls — It was Tracy Abrams’ turn as he sank two free throws to top Missouri last weekend. No UI triumph in any sport this year quite matches these two for uplifting most Illini fans.
(1) Wheelchair sparkler — The UI’s Tatyana McFadden, a star in events from 100 to 5,000 meters, became the first marathoner to pull off the Grand Slam in Boston, Chicago, London and New York. And her early life is even more remarkable than her wheelchair successes.
(2) Golfers amaze — Mike Small’s UI golfers keep getting better. They finished second in the NCAA, capping a surge that has seen them win five Big Ten titles, take two NCAA individual crowns and help two highly promising newcomers, Luke Guthrie and Scott Langley, win big bucks alongside Steve Stricker and D.A. Points on the 2013 PGA Tour.
(3) Mat champ — Jesse Delgado became the UI’s first NCAA wrestling champ since Matt Lackey in 2003, capturing the title at 125 pounds.
(4) Batting streak — Justin Parr won the Eddleman 2013 Athlete of the Year award with an NCAA-high 33-game hitting streak for the Illini. He also hit for the cycle against Purdue, and his streak didn’t end until he got just two official at-bats in the third game of a sweep against Penn State.
Under the radar
(1) Root of evil? — Not in this case. The increasing revenue from Big Ten broadcasts is scheduled to bring Illinois more than $40 million per year by 2017, a fact that affects key decisions about hiring future coaches, team scheduling, scholarship payments, stadium work and, if necessary, Farm overruns. This nation-leading revenue is what brought Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland into the Big Ten. It affects everything and reduces the financial concern about falling attendance.
(2) Chief rebuffed — Unknown to many, Chief Illiniwek supporters were well on their way to arranging a limited return of the longtime Illini symbol. But the administration, led by Chancellor Phyllis Wise, stepped in at the last moment to deter the plan.
(3) Nearly gone — With father Jeff Finke showing interest in the Champaign Central basketball job, son Mike looked into several options (prep school among them) before returning to Centennial. Mike took an Illini tender when it was offered. And to everyone’s surprise, late entry Wayne McClain returned from Kansas State to coach the Maroons.
(1) Streak snapped — When Illinois broke its 20-game Big Ten football losing streak at Purdue (20-16), excitement was limited except in the locker room. It was more like a deep breath of relief. Any positive vibes were lost a week later.
(2) Culture change — We are seeing, in what has become a national movement, a dramatic change in the makeup of UI football and basketball teams. With summer AAU upstaging high schools as a proving ground, colleges are dealing with “one-and-dones” and transfers like never before. Tim Beckman is building his immediate future around a nucleus of Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt and juco products. Typical of UI basketball foes, UIC will be led Saturday by Purdue transfer Kelsey Barlow.
(3) Take your pick — In a major surprise, Terri Sullivan’s UI softball team reversed course after a 1-11 start in the Big Ten to win nine straight. Was this more stunning than Janet Rayfield’s soccer team rebounding from a bumpy, injury-hampered season to win two tight NCAA tourney matches? It’s your choice.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.