CHAMPAIGN — Taylor Edwards emerged from the tunnel and onto the court at State Farm Center.
Edwards was one of the first players on the Illinois women’s basketball team to get up a few shots before last Wednesday afternoon’s practice.
The Illinois graduate student was joined later by teammates Ali Andrews and Cierra Rice after the two Illini seniors wrapped up their responsibilities talking to the assembled media.
Extra work in the gym is nothing new to Edwards, who has slowly acclimated herself to playing basketball again after wrapping up a four-year pitching career on Tyra Perry’s Illinois softball team in late May.
It had been more than four years since the two-time News-Gazette girls’ basketball All-Area first-team selection at Arcola had played in a competitive game when the 5-foot-7 guard saw action during the Illini’s overseas trip to Australia in August.
Edwards, currently pursuing a master’s degree in Recreation Sport and Tourism with a concentration in sports management, briefly played in two of Illinois’ three games against Australian foes.
What it meant to return to the court for the first time in a while wasn’t something Edwards reflected much on in the moment. Instead, Edwards admitted she took a few seconds after her first appearance as an Illini women’s basketball player — an 86-71 win over the Dandenong Rangers on Aug. 9 — to let everything sink in.
“I think most of the emotions came during just the little things like pregame warmups, getting on the bus, getting off the bus,” Edwards said. “Once game time came, I felt like I was in game mode. I kind of just went in the game and did what coach told me to do. After the game, I kind of had time to think about it and dwell over just how good it felt to be back on the court again. That first time going into the game, I didn’t really have too much time to get nervous or get emotional because it just happened so fast.”
Nancy Fahey’s third Illinois team is set to open its season at 11 a.m. Tuesday against Chicago State at State Farm with Edwards on the team. A walk-on with the Illini, she likely won’t be put on scholarship even with two open scholarships as Fahey said the Illini will continue to look at the possibility of mid-year additions to the roster to fill that allotment.
Yet, even without the security of a scholarship, Edwards’ influence has already been felt in other ways during her five-plus months on roster.
“I can tell you she has not lost one sprint (in practice),” Fahey said. “Not one.”
Edwards’ foot speed took a few of her teammates by surprise.
“The girl is fast,” Rice said. “She plays really hard and she works her butt off. Having her on this team has been great and has been really impactful for us. I think it’s something that we needed.”
Edwards isn’t sure what the next five months have in store, but it’s clear that even with an experienced group of players returning (Edwards is one of five seniors) her value as someone who has been part of winning program (three NCAA softball tournament appearances) isn’t lost on an Illini group without much success under Fahey (19-42 overall record).
“She knows how to be a leader,” Andrews said. “She might not know that she does have a really good voice on this team, but she does have that voice. People really look up to her. People really respect her.”
As for what Edwards hopes to get out of her final season of college eligibility, it’s a two-fold answer. First, she wants to be part of the turnaround of Illinois women’s basketball, which hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2003 and only has one winning season this decade.
“I just want to push this program forward in any way that I can,” Edwards said. “I don’t want it to be about me. I don’t want it be about some student-athlete playing a fifth year. I just want this program to take a step forward this season. If I can be a part of that in any way, I would love to.”
On a personal side, Edwards wants to see how a sport like women’s basketball operates from an administrative standout compared with a sport like softball. The 22-year-old, after all, has an interest pursuing a career in sports administration after her graduate studies.
Edwards’ master’s program this semester includes four eight-week long online courses.
That kind of coursework has allowed Edwards the freedom to set her own schedule, which has been important in balancing classwork, practice time and extra time outside of normal practices to return to basketball shape.
Through it all, Edwards has found a way to avoid letting her leap from softball to women’s basketball get too overwhelming.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Edwards said. “It’s been good to get back on the court and play the game again. In terms of adjusting to this team, it’s been pretty tough, but my teammates have been great about showing me the ropes, teaching me about the system and just keeping me up to speed with Coach Fahey’s coaching style and just helping me brush off the rust a little bit. They’ve been joining me in the gym in getting shots up. It’s been about a lot of adjustment and learning new things.”