What a spring it is shaping up to be on the University of Illinois campus.
The Fighting Illini baseball team is off to an historic start to the season, compiling a 31-6-1 record, good for a #11 ranking in the country. Stellar pitching, timely hitting, and an exceptional relief pitcher have combined to give the Illini record crowds at Illinois Field this season Starters Kevin Duchene and Drasen Johnson have anchored a pitching staff that is one of the best in the Big Ten conference, if not the nation, while Adam Walton, Casey Fletcher and brothers Reid and Ryne Roper have given the pitchers quite a bit of run support. However, the crown jewel of the Illini would have to be closer Tyler Jay, who almost assuredly will be a first round draft choice in the next draft. Jay has compiled a miniscule 0.71 ERA in 38 innings this season with 43 strikeouts. Jay is that rare player that can finish a game with zest, but also be called upon to start or go in long relief if needed. The Illini will host Eastern Illinois on Tuesday evening (6:00 pm CT) before embarking on a stretch of games that will take them away from Illinois Field for the next two weekends. The Illini will continue Big Ten play this coming weekend when they travel to State College, Pennsylvania to battle the Penn State Nittany Lions.
After an auspicious start to the season, Terri Sullivan's Illinois women's softball team has turned around their season by winning nine out of their last 10 games, and currently have a 21-22 record on the season, with a 10-5 conference mark, A lot of that success lately can be attributed to the pitching of Jade Vecvanags, who has compiled a 15-9 record. Also helping the cause has been Alyssa Gunther and Allie Bauch, who both are hitting near the .400 mark. The Illini defeated Wisconsin 12-8 and 5-3 on Saturday, and will play a mid-week conference doubleheader on Wednesday when they travel to Evanston to take on the Northwestern Wildcats ( 2:00 pm, BTN).
Injuries have been the name of the game for Tim Beckman and the Fighting Illini football team during spring workouts, with two of their top players that were expected to contribute out for the forseeable future. Freshman Mike Dudek, who had a record-setting first season for Illinois last season, sustained an ACL injury in a non-contact drill and will be sidelined at least through October. To add further insult to injury, early enrollee Dre Brown, who figured to get quite a bit of work behind senior Josh Ferguson this fall, also was lost to an ACL tear, but on Saturday at the annual Spring game, Beckman stated that it might not be as serious as your typical ACL injury. Still, an injury is an injury and it was not something that Beckman had bargained for. Due to the amount of players out for the Spring game, special rules were put in place for the game. First of all, the White team, which was comprised primarily of backup players, was given a 17-0 lead out of the gate, and when the Orange team, mostly starters, came back and led 27-17 at the half, the White team was given 17 additional points.
Due to the shortage of players at several key positions, some of the defensive linemen donned blue jerseys and played on both sides of the ball. Beckman can ill afford to lose any more players, because depth is an issue at several spots, and although there are a few players coming in the fall that will help alleviate the gap, it is still a concern,
?Obviously it was tough to lose Mikey and Dre, but with the guys we have coming in the fall, we should be fine. Injuries are just a part of the game, and although we lost both players on non-contact drills, we never considered cancelling the game for any reason", Beckman said after the Spring game on Saturday. The Illini will resume workouts later this summer with their annual trek to Camp Rantoul. Illinois will kick off the regular season on Friday night, September 4th under the lights at Memorial Stadium against the Golden Flashes of Kent State University.
Finally, even though the Fighting Illini men's basketball season ended on a very discouraging note, all hope is certainly not lost. Head coach John Groce had never experienced a collapse like the one his team embarked on at the end of the season, and one knew that changes were coming as a result. Sure enough, Austin Colbert, who was beginning to come on at the end of the season, announced last week that he would be transferring out of the program. However, this past weekend, Groce received a commitment from Charlotte transfer Mike Thorne, who can come and play immediately. Thorne brings a strong inside game to the Illini that should replace Nnanna Egwu adequately. Groce still is in search of a point guard, and is still very much in the running for Marcus Lovett from Morgan Park Academy in Chicago, or possible another fifth year transfer in guard Dylan Ennis of Villanova.