Edwards jumps at chance to join Fahey's Illini

 

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CHAMPAIGN — Taylor Edwards' signature eye-black look won't be making a return.

During her four seasons on the Illinois softball team, Edwards joked Wednesday that the team's equipment manager had grown accustomed to washing black stains out of her uniform.

That will change this winter, a welcomed sight for the equipment staff.

Edwards might be changing her countenance, but the recent University of Illinois graduate is also getting a chance to still have "Illinois" emblazoned across her uniform one last time.

This time, Edwards is joining Nancy Fahey's Illinois women's basketball team as a walk-on for the 2019-2020 season.

Edwards, who last played competitive hoops during the 2014-15 school year when she was a senior at Arcola, helped the Purple Riders win Class 1A regional titles in 2014 and 2015. The 5-foot-7 Edwards, who tallied 1,628 career points at Arcola and was a four-sport athlete for the Purple Riders, earned News-Gazette All-Area First Team girls' basketball honors twice during her prep career.

Edwards began exploring her options a couple months ago and eventually reached out to Fahey via e-mail to see if the Illini might have a spot for her on the women's basketball team.

The two eventually sat down after Illinois' softball season concluded with the Illini eliminated in an NCAA regional in mid-May.

Fahey said it was during that conversation that she was honest with Edwards about the challenges that would be facing the Arcola native, but the enthusiasm Edwards brought to the meeting made it a "no-brainer" to bring her on board.

"She bleeds orange and blue. She loves the Illini," Fahey said. "When she came up to me and talked about if there was an option for this ... you can tell she is dedicated. Her spirit is something that is pretty admirable and is something that you'd like to have on your team."

"When I met with Coach Fahey and she asked me that question: 'Do you need time to think about it?' About a second later, 'I said 'No. I'm in," Edwards recalled.

"I missed the game since I left it in high school," she added. "My passion for this school ... I've loved every second of my experience here so just to get the opportunity to wear the Illinois uniform for another season is a huge blessing for me."

With the itch to play basketball again, Edwards returned to the gym in recent months putting up shots at the Activities and Recreation Center on the UI campus. It had been years since she played the game in any sort of competitive setting, wanting to concentrate fully on softball and avoid any risk of injury.

Inside the circle, the right-hander compiled a 37-19 record in 61 starts over four seasons with the Illini, tossing 12 complete game and posting four shutouts. She was part of three Illinois teams that reached the NCAA tournament.

It's the sort of success that Fahey — now entering her third season in charge — is looking to achieve in turning around a program that hasn't reached the NCAA women's basketball tournament since 2003 and finished 10-20 last season, including 2-16 in the Big Ten.

"Softball has a winning culture. They've been in the postseason," Fahey said. "That's a big factor. When you have somebody that's been there and been in a postseason, that's contagious. That's important that you make sure to keep fostering in your locker room."

Edwards admitted she was nervous before the team's first official summer workout at the Ubben Basketball Complex on Wednesday. She will be one of four newcomers on the Illini women's team for the upcoming campaign, alongside freshmen Jada Peebles, Jeanae Terry and Kennedi Myles.

"I just want to learn the system and learn the game and really honor the girls that have been putting in the work for the past years of this program," said Edwards, who will be pursuing a master's degree in Recreation Sport and Tourism, with a concentration in sports management during the upcoming academic year. "I had a lot of great help from the girls (Wednesday). (It's) an adjustment period of learning how I can best help this team."

Sports Copy Editor

Joe Vozzelli Jr. is a sports copy editor at The News-Gazette. His email is jvozzelli@news-gazette.com.