CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois football team made an appearance at Monday’s game. A majority of players sat behind the bleachers closest to the Wisconsin bench wearing their navy blue jersey tops in the first half.
“I heard a couple of my teammates saying before the game a lot of the football players were going to come,” senior Adrienne GodBold said. “To look up and see them in the crowd, it makes us feel good that we’ve got the support from our fellow athletes.”
The Presidents’ Day crowd drew 1,792 fans to the Assembly Hall in the first — and only — Monday night home game of the season for Illinois.
“We’re hoping for more and hoping to keep growing this, but on a Monday night in the rain to get (close to) 1,800, that’s a big improvement for us,” Illinois coach Matt Bollant said. “This community needs to come out and see this team because these guys are special.”
The buzz about the Illini is spreading around campus and out into Champaign-Urbana. Karisma Penn experienced this by dialing a local pizza place recently.
“I called Papa John’s the other day,” she said with a laugh. “The guy on the phone said, ‘Oh, Karisma Penn. You’re so good. I listen to your games all the time.’ ”
Former Illini in the house. Former Illinois point guard Maggie Acuna had a rooting interest for both teams Monday.
Acuna, who set a single-game record for assists with 16 during a Jan. 15, 2006, game at Wisconsin, is now part of Wisconsin’s athletic compliance staff after she graduated from law school at Valparaiso last spring.
“Orange and Blue is still in the blood,” Acuna said with a smile. “Obviously I spent a lot of time here, and it was a big part of my life. Of course there’s still some loyalty there, but I have my loyalties at Wisconsin as well. I’ve seen some old faces, and the memories come back quickly.”
Acuna said it was easier the second time around watching her alma mater and her current employer play after taking in the Illinois-Wisconsin game Feb. 3 in Madison.
“I got a little preview of it,” Acuna said. “It’s tough, but I hope that both programs do well. I suppose you can root for at least two teams in the Big Ten.”
Acuna, who played under Theresa Grentz, said the job Bollant has done in his first season in Champaign has “been a breath of fresh air” for the program.
“He’s only been here a couple months, and things have definitely turned around,” she said. “They look very promising for the future, so as an alumni I’m excited, and I’m sure it’s caused a little excitement here in Champaign. Their staff has been absolutely great in welcoming former players back.”
In the house. While Monday night’s game was televised by the BTN, play-by-play announcer Lisa Byington and analyst LaChina Robinson were back in the station’s studios in Chicago calling the game. Sideline reporter Kara Lenz, however, was at the Assembly Hall to check out Illinois for the third time this season in person.
“It’s been fun to watch them progress throughout the year,” Lenz said. “Even some of their losses, they were resilient. The way they interact with the coaches and the way they take to the coaches is completely different than I’ve seen them in the past. Their confidence and belief in themselves is something that’s really stood out to me, especially seeing them in the huddles.”
The enthusiasm Bollant and his staff bring to the games is an aspect that stands out to Lenz.
“When you see this team play, you can feel their energy,” Lenz said. “I love seeing how passionate their coaches are on the sidelines. I’m sitting behind there thinking I want to play.”
Hunting for talent. Winning, like any college coach will say, is the best cure-all for any woes, especially when it comes to recruiting.
Bollant has certainly made the recruiting pitch easier for the Class of 2014 with the success Illinois has had this year, according to Chris Mennig.
Mennig is a national evaluator and event coordinator for Blue Star Basketball, one of the more respected and thorough recruiting services used in the women’s college game. Mennig is also the girls’ basketball coach at St. Thomas More, which improved to 31-2 Monday to advance to a Friday Class 2A state semifinal game at Illinois State. The Sabers beat Litchfield 75-36 on Monday night in a super-sectional game at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
“To a degree, recruiting is sales,” Mennig said. “When you’re able to expand on some of that positive (public relations) where there’s already some excitement about the hire, and now you’re able to double it up with some success on the court, I can only imagine that it’s starting to open up a few more eyes to some families and kids across the country. I’m sure if they continue to have success throughout the season, they’ll reap that reward at the end.”
Illinois will have three scholarships to use on players in the Class of 2014, and a point guard is one player Bollant has previously stated he wants to add in every recruiting class. The up-tempo nature Illinois plays at this year and would like to continue to play in future seasons is an area Illinois can point out to potential recruits. Illinois came into Monday’s game ranked second in the Big Ten in scoring offense at 72.1 points.
“For Matt, obviously, you can see his aggressive offensive style is putting up some more numbers on the board than they have in the past,” Mennig said. “I’m sure a lot of it is just those kids getting some more reps. He’s got athletes out there. He has players that deserve to be in the Big Ten on his roster, and he’s maximizing their ability right now in a real short period of time.”