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What to watch
Three Illini events to keep an eye on this weekend:
6 p.m. Friday vs. Northwestern
At Atkins Tennis Center
Whatever else might separate the Illini from national power Northwestern, these Big Ten rivals have this much in common: each has lost to No. 7 Notre Dame by 5-2 scores. That's worth noting because it indicates the No. 2 Wildcats apparently aren't as invincible as they looked in mid-February, when they claimed their second straight ITA National Team Indoor Championship title. Or when they rolled into South Bend, Ind., last Sunday with an 8-0 record. The comparable outcomes against the Irish should give No. 39 Illinois (3-5) confidence that it's capable of being competitive. Senior Megan Fudge and junior Marisa Lambropoulos have been the most successful Illini since the start of the dual-meet season. Fudge is 6-2 at No. 2 singles. Lambropoulos is 5-1 while playing anywhere from No. 4 to No. 6. Northwestern's top player is junior Maria Mosolova, the Most Outstanding Player of the ITA National Team Indoor Championship and a two-time Big Ten Player of the Year.
Fri.-Sun. NFCA Leadoff Classic
At Columbus, Ga.
Illinois' first of five contests at the 23-team tournament put on by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association will be against No. 22 Florida State (10-1), which as of Wednesday was on a 10-game winning streak, the last five by shutout. At 9-1, Illinois is off to its best 10-game start since 2003, when it also opened 9-1. The Illini nearly cracked this week's USA Today/NFCA Top 25, earning the 26th-most votes. Illinois enters Friday's 12:30 p.m. matchup against the Seminoles 1-1 against ranked opponents this season. Another noteworthy matchup for the Illini will be against Radford, which won its first Big South tournament title last spring and went 1-2 in the 2009 NCAA tournament. For the second straight weekend, coach Terri Sullivan will not accompany the Illini. Sullivan, who is expecting her first child in March, is under doctor's orders to avoid plane travel. Associate head coach Donna DiBiase is assuming Sullivan's duties on all trips not made by bus.
5 p.m. Saturday vs. Michigan
At Huff Hall
The No. 17 Illini will be seeking their third win in a row when the No. 15 Wolverines come to campus. In his 11th year as Illini head coach and 17th season on the UI staff, Bob Starkell has yet to see any of his teams get the better of Michigan in a dual or multi-team meet. The Wolverines have defeated Illinois in 27 straight meetings, the Illini last finishing ahead of Michigan in the 1990 Big Ten meet. "You never know," Starkell said. "We have as strong a chance as last year. This could be our best opportunity." The Illini (7-6, 5-1 Big Ten) nearly knocked off the Wolverines (9-1, 2-0 Big Ten) in a duel for the 2009 Big Ten Championships title at Huff Hall. Illinois scored a school-record 196.750 points to finish 0.325 point behind Michigan, which won its third straight league crown. It marked the second year in a row that these teams finished 1-2 in the conference meet. This dual brings together two of the nation's top all-arounders. Michigan junior Kylee Botterman, a three-time All-American, is ranked 10th in the all-around and has won a team-best 15 individual titles this season. She is the sister of former Illini Dayne and Marijka Botterman. UI junior Allison Buckley is No. 14 nationally and has won nine events.
Illini of the Week
Is this the year the senior left fielder moves up to the All-Big Ten first team after three straight second-team awards? Howell is off to a strong start in making that argument. The Lithonia, Ga., native hit .588 (10 of 17) in five games last weekend at the Stanford Nike Invitational, raising her season average to .429. Howell, who bats second in the lineup, scored six runs and drove in four as the Illini won four of five games at the tournament. In those four victories, the left-handed batter racked up an on-base percentage of .733 and a slugging percentage of .786.
News & views
Life of Riley
The 2009 Big Ten Indoor Track and Field Championships served as a coming-out party for Andrew Riley. The sophomore won't be taking anyone by surprise this weekend, however, when the league's best head to Minnesota's University Fieldhouse in Minneapolis to decide its team and individual champions. The two-day meet begins Saturday.
"Andrew's been performing great," Illini interim coach Mike Turk said. "I think he's kind of taken it to another level this year. ... It seems like every week he's setting a PR (personal record) or season best. And you watch him perform and you know there's still more there."
As a freshman, Riley won the Big Ten 60-meter hurdles, breaking a 9-year-old school record in the process with a time of 7.72 seconds. After becoming the first Illini in 10 years to win a league indoor hurdles title, Riley was selected indoor Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
The performance proved to be a springboard for the Kingston, Jamaica, native, who went on to become a two-time All-American and earn the UI's all-sports Male Newcomer of the Year award.
"I think he had the kind of season last year that opened eyes," Turk said. "I think he surprised people with what he did last year."
Riley has picked up where he left off, tying the UI record in the 60 (6.72) and three times running NCAA provisional qualifying marks in the 60 hurdles.
Illini senior Greg Shroka enters as the Big Ten's No. 4 performer in the high jump with a career-best 7 feet, 1 3/4 inches. That also ranks second on the all-time UI indoor list to Gail Olson's 7-3 in 1980. Shroka, who placed fifth in last year's Big Ten meet, has cleared 7 feet in three of four meets this winter.
"He's having a breakout season," Turk said.
Back to Penn State
The last time the Illinois women's track and field team was in State College, Pa., it returned with a Big Ten title. Coach Tonja Buford-Bailey doesn't expect her Illini to repeat that 2007 outdoor feat this weekend. She does expect an upper-division finish, however, when the Big Ten Indoor Championships begins a two-day run Saturday at Penn State's Horace Ashenfelter III Indoor Track.
"I don't think we're a top-three team right now," Buford-Bailey said. "Last year, we scored 60 points (while placing fifth). Our goal is to do better than that and be in the top five."
Buford-Bailey regards her team as better suited for success in the outdoor season because of such events as the 400-meter hurdles and steeplechase, which aren't run indoors. And like her predecessor, Hall of Famer Gary Winckler, second-year head coach Buford-Bailey gears her team's training toward reaching a peak during the NCAA outdoor meet.
"We want our kids to be the best they can be by June," she said.
The Illini's top title contenders include distance runner and two-time NCAA champion Angela Bizzarri; three-time All-American shot putter Aja Evans; and junior Tamika Robinson in the 60 hurdles.
For all that eight-time All-American Bizzarri has achieved, the senior has yet to win a Big Ten indoor title. Last winter, Bizzarri finished second in the conference 3,000, and she has placed as high as third in the Big Ten mile.
"For her to be able to knock down a (Big Ten) win indoors would be good," Buford-Bailey said. "It is kind of crazy with her career ... but our conference is strong and she's more of a strong finisher where she seems to perform well at nationals."
Eddleman Award watch
(Winter Sports Edition)
Each week we'll rank our top three candidates for the 2009-10 Dike Eddleman Award, which annually goes to the top male and female athletes at the University of Illinois.
1. Paul Ruggeri, gymnastics. Junior set new school record in parallel bars against Penn State.
2. Demitri McCamey, basketball. Junior's 6.75 assists average threatening school record (6.77).
3. John Dergo, wrestling. Senior will take 17-match winning streak into Big Ten Championships.
1. Jenna Smith, basketball. Senior has moved up to fifth on Big Ten's career rebounding list.
2. Allison Buckley, gymnastics. Junior owns four of top five all-time UI scores (plus ties) in all-around.
3. Lacey Simpson, basketball. Versatile senior ranks in the Illini career top 10 in eight categories.
Senior Jen Ivarson tied an 11-year-old Illini record in the 200-yard butterfly Saturday during the preliminary round at the Big Ten Championships in West Lafayette, Ind. The all-time top five performances:
NAME TIME YEAR
Jen Ivarson 2:02.00 2010
Natasha Messmer 2:02.00 1999
Jen Ivarson 2:02.02 2009
Natasha Messmer 2:02.02 2000
Natasha Messmer 2:02.16 1999