Freshmen fit right in at Illinois

The way Melissa Parker sees it, her coach won't have to jump in any more lakes in the middle of winter to drum up support for women's basketball at Illinois, which she has.

She won't have to wear a costume to practice on Halloween, which she has.

She won't have to go hoarse speaking to every club and group in the state, which she has.

All Theresa Grentz will have to do is coach basketball. Folks will get the message without the marketing.

"If we keep getting better and keep winning games like we have been, the fans will come because of that," said Parker. "That's the way this program is headed."

The Illini were in Fayetteville, Ark., on Wednesday, their coach presumably thawed out from her ill-timed dip into icy waters at Lake of the Woods. And they defeated the nation's 10th-ranked team, 100-81.

Now they'll head north with a share of first place in the Big Ten, which is news for a program used to looking skyward in the standings.

But hold the applause.

"We're not finished yet," Parker said. "If we don't make the NCAA tournament and pretty much if we don't win the Big Ten ... If we don't get to that point, the whole team will be disappointed."

Fitting into the mix

This is not "talk," Tauja Catchings says.

Catchings is another freshman on a fresh UI roster, 1 of 4 first-year regulars who make up the Illini's most talked-about recruiting class. Like Parker, when she swings, it's for the fences.

"Let's just say we hope to have a couple rings on our hand by the time we leave."

She did not say Big Ten or NCAA, but either brand of jewelry would surely suit the Illini at this point.

Said Catchings: "I think we can be very good, very soon."

Very wary. That's what the freshmen were when they reported to campus, curious if the upperclassmen would welcome them with a handshake or a headlock. There was playing time and pride at stake, reason for a senior to give a newcomer a shoulder as cold as Grentz's feet were Tuesday morning.

Grentz worried about "total chaos" breaking out.

Parker worried about "not bonding."

Catchings worried about "how we'd mesh."

So what happened?

"Right off the bat, before the season started, it was like, 'What's everybody doing tonight?' " Catchings said. "It wasn't like one person going here, another person going there."

Sure, there have been scraps. Practice is not a tea party. But for the most part, the Illini are acing chemistry class.

"I'm going to be honest, it's not a day at the beach every day," Grentz said. "But they're certainly working hard at it."

First-year contributions

The Illini would not be 11-3 without the freshmen.

Parker starts at point guard and leads the team in both assists and no-look passes. Catchings is Grentz's wild card, able to play guard or forward with defensive flair. Guard Katie Coleman provides a scoring boost off the bench, while 6-foot-5 center Casey Leonhardt adds muscle.

Together, the four average nearly 27 points and 15 rebounds a game. This despite the bruises.

"The biggest change (from high school) was that everybody's bigger, everybody's stronger," Catchings said. "The first elbow to the back, that's when I first realized it."

When first elbowed, Catchings did not retaliate or pout. Neither did her classmates.

That's what most impresses Grentz, who has seen her teen-agers handle hostile crowds at Purdue and Wisconsin without forgetting their lines.

They're 18 going on 30.

"Nothing seems to bother them," Grentz said.

Not even a traffic jam in heavy rain with a player getting sick in the back of the bus. That was the UI's uncomfortable scenario on its way to the season-opener in Las Vegas. They made tip-off in time, but not without a delay.

During the commotion, the Illini did not snap. Instead, they sang.

"That right there, it was a bonding experience," Parker said. "It showed everybody got along. There were no problems at all."

Jim Rossow is sports editor of The News-Gazette.

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