With 2018 coming to a close today, The News-Gazette sports staff spotlights the top 10 stories that defined the last 12 months of area athletics:
Some things are bigger than sports. Significantly bigger. Sure, Jason Seaman (above) had a standout prep career at Mahomet-Seymour High School and went on to play football at Southern Illinois. But it was the now-Noblesville (Ind.) Middle School teacher's selfless sacrifice stopping a school shooter that stands above the rest of the athletic pursuits populating this list.
Well, 2018 was something for Illinois men's basketball. The end of a 14-18 season in Brad Underwood's first year as head coach. Don't forget a 4-9 start to his second. And in between? Some serious roster churn with six departures (including four transfers) and eight newcomers. The early 2019 outlook doesn't appear much brighter for the Illini.
Illinois volleyball captured the C-U community's attention in the final two months of the season. Consecutive sellouts to end the regular season were telling. So was the crowd for an 11 a.m. Sweet 16 match. And another sellout to watch the Illini secure their first Final Four berth since 2011. They injected life in a fan base desperately needing something positive.
Lovie Smith's two-year extension after a 9-27 record in three seasons drew some raised eyebrows. But the buyout didn't change, and the Illini engendered some real goodwill signing four-star talents Marquez Beason and Isaiah Williams and landing Miami wide receiver — and legit NFL prospect — Jeff Thomas (above) on the transfer market. Some needed goodwill after a 4-8 season.
The number of high school state champions in 2018 was a lengthy one, including both team and individual titles. Monticello and Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley (above) winning football championships on the same day was big. So was the Schlarman girls' basketball state title and track and field championships by the St. Joseph-Ogden girls and Ridgeview/Lexington boys.
Facilities improvement was certainly a DIA theme for 2018. Construction is halfway (maybe more) complete on the Smith Football Performance Center. Ground was broken for the start of a complete soccer/track and field overhaul with Demirjian Park. Coming soon? An expansion of Ubben Basketball Complex (above) and the Susan and Clint Atkins Baseball Training Center.
High school football — more correctly, the push for five wins and the playoffs — drove the last 10 years of conference realignment across the state. Our area teams didn't avoid it. The IHSA has an answer. Starting with the 2021 season, football will move to geographic districts determined by enrollment. Let's just say the reactions have been mixed.
It wasn't all doom and gloom for Illinois athletics. Men's golf continues to be a yearly title contender, and Renee Slone's women's team is pushing into the national picture, too. Men's gymnastics won a Big Ten title and placed third in the NCAAs, while both tennis teams also reached the postseason, and Isaiah Martinez (above) wrestled for another NCAA title.
Plenty of success across town at Parkland, too. The Cobras' baseball team were national runners-up, and their men's golf team finished third nationally. And, of course, there's volleyball. The Cobras played in their fifth straight national championship, finishing second. Success in Danville, too, with DACC men's basketball reaching the national tourney.
Plenty of ex-Illini had a successful 2018. Like volleyball All-American Michelle Bartsch-Hackley cementing her spot on Team USA with MVP honors in the FIVB Women's Nation League. But it was Kevin Anderson (above) and his runner-up finish at Wimbledon — beating Roger Federer, the 61 / 2-hour long semifinals marathon against John Isner — that was must-see TV.