courtesy Illinois athletics

Werner: Spring sports continue to provide bright spot for Illini athletics

Golf, tennis and softball providing Illinois athletics with winning cultures Josh Whitman is trying to instill elsewhere

Josh Whitman has spent most of his 15 months at Illinois trying to provide some rays of light to Illinois athletics' mostly dreary fall and winter.

While the volleyball, wrestling and men's gymnastics programs have been among the best in the country, Whitman has dismissed the department's three highest-paid coaches -- men's basketball coach John Groce, football coach Bill Cubit and women's basketball coach Matt Bollant -- to try to lift the program's most visible three programs out of the darkness.

He also has had to/must replace two coaches who had success at Illinois: volleyball coach Kevin Hambly left for defending NCAA champion Stanford (and was replaced by Nebraska assistant Chris Tamas) and women's gymnastics coach Kim Landrus recently took the North Carolina State job.

But at least Whitman inherited one good season, the one that always seems the shortest in Illinois.

Illinois spring sports will never earn the attention of its money-making fall (football) and winter (men's basketball) siblings. But during the past few years, it sure has provided some much-neede sunshine to what has been an otherwise cloudy, oftentimes stormy athletics program.

And 2017 is no exception with three teams currently participating in the NCAA Tournament.


Mike Small is the best at his craft. He's taken a northern golf program and developed it into a national powerhouse. But late Wednesday morning, the Illini men's golf coach thought the hotrod he'd work so long to build had finally had hit a pothole.

On the back nine of the final round of West Lafayette Regional, Illinois trailed the fifth-place team by six strokes. Only the top-five teams from each NCAA Regional advance to the NCAA Championships, a tournament Illinois had advanced to the previous nine years.

Small hated his team's body language. The usually tough and self-assured Illini were rattled.

But the great coaches know what to say to whom and when to say it. At hole 15, Small approached every other Illini golfer and gave them a goal.

"You just can't lose the faith," Small said. "I felt like we did a couple of times (on Wednesday). I kind of got frustrated when guys got a little somber and started feeling sorry for themselves a little bit. You kind of got to remind them what we do and what we're all about. The message on 15 is that everybody had to play 1-under on the way out. It was a tall task, but that was the goal." Junior Nick Hardy surpassed the goal, finishing the final five holes with back-to-back birdies followed by back-to-back-to-back pars. Junior Dylan Meyer -- the Illini's top golfer who had struggled through most the first 50 holes after not playing a round the previous two weeks due to an illness -- also hit the goal, with birdies on 15 and 17 before a bogey on 18. Sophomore Edoardo Lipparelli and freshman Giovanni Tadiotto came close, shooting 1-over on the final four holes -- a pretty impressive task given the constant 25 mph winds that sometimes gusted up to 40 mph.

As other teams collapsed in the wind, Small's Illini gained strong, steady footing. On a day No. 5-ranked Florida shot a 24-over and missed the championship cut, Illinois shot a team-best 6-over to take third place and earn to its 10th straight bid to the NCAA Championships.

"We've been to 11 or 12 (NCAA) finals, and we've done it all different ways," Small said. "We've led out in front, blowing people away. We've come from way back. Every team has its own little history, its own little roadway that you've gotten there. This was ours. This was ours to test us out after a rough day (Tuesday) to see if we could do it (Wednesday). There were times, if you looked at it logically, that we were going to make it out of there. It looked insurmountable if you know anything about college golf."

The Illini survived harsh conditions and advanced. But does this team -- ranked No. 7 in the country heading into the regional -- have what it takes to get what still eludes Small and the program?

The good news is three of the team's top-four players have NCAA Championship experience. Hardy and Meyer have played huge roles in two Final Four teams. Lipparelli took huge strides at the end of last season to help the Illini advance to the NCAA semifinal.

The talent also is there. Hardy ranks No. 12 in the men's individual collegiate rankings. Meyer ranks No. 16. Freshman Michael Feagles, who had a subpar performance at the regional, earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors and was the Illini's No. 3 golfer for most of the spring. Lipparelli (Italy) and Tadiotto (another in the Belgium-to-Illini pipeline) are the latest great international finds for Small.

The Illini also will have a home-state advantage at the NCAA Championships, which will be held next weekend at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill. Hardy, Meyer and Lipparelli all played there last year, and Small has great familiarity with the course.

An hour prior to the end of the West Lafayette Regional, Small didn't think his team had it this year. But a few words, a few big putts and a few gusts of wind against the Illini's opponents gave these Illini another fighting chance.

"Today and this week, we got a little down on ourselves and started moping," Small said. "Well, next week, that's not going to happen in front of a lot of fans for us. That's unique. I think next week we're going to feed a lot off the fans and feed off the excitement. We're going to use it to the best of our ability. But we got to play better. We got to drive it better. We got to putt it better. We got some stuff we got to do yet."

Illini tennis overcomes 'horrible' coaching

Brad Dancer has kept Illinois a nationally relevant and successful program since taking over in 2006 for the man who built Illini tennis into a national power (Craig Tiley).

Dancer has led the Illini to 11 straight NCAA Tournaments (including a national runner-up finish in 2007), two conference tournament titles and one conference regular-season championship.

But a 16-11 overall record this season, including an 8-3, third-place Big Ten finish, left Dancer hyper-critical of himself.

"I've done a horrible job this year; I really have," Dancer said. "You got to know your personalities. You got to know how hard to push and when to back off, and I think we adapted a little bit  too much to our personality this year. We didn't push hard enough. We were soft in too many matches on the road in the Big Ten, when we really shouldn't have been. If we don't lose those matches, then I think we're playing Ohio State for the regular-season title, and I think we win that match if we're in a different position. I just think we did not do a good job as a coaching staff throughout the year of really identifying which guys to push, when to push them and how hard to go. I know we can do better."

Dancer pushed the right buttons just in the nick of the time.

Down 3-0 to Oklahoma State in the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament after dropping the doubles point and No. 3 and No. 6 matches, Illinois looked on the cusp of getting swept to end its season.

But then junior Aron Hiltzik won the No. 2 match with a dominating 6-0 third set. Then classmate Aleks Vukic (pictured above) -- one of the most under-talked-about Illini greats of recent memory (93-12 collegiate record, including a 28-1 Big Ten record) -- won his 21st consecutive singles match with back-to-back tiebreak wins. Finally, a pair of freshmen, Zeke Clark and Alex Kovacevic, won the No. 5 and No. 4 matches, respectively, to close out the comeback and advance the Illini to the Sweet 16.

"It really was not a great team effort from us the other day, but it was four guys that went out and were tough as nails," Dancer said. "Even though we were down some sets, we were really resilient; we were really tough."

No. 25-ranked Illinois (18-11) advanced to its ninth Sweet 16 under Dancer. The Illini take on No. 6 TCU (21-4) at 11 a.m. Thursday in Athens, Ga. The Illini lost to TCU 5-2 on March 22 in Ft. Worth.

But the Illini's performance against Oklahoma State in Stillwater left Dancer like his team was just starting to reach its potential.

"It was a proud moment more than anything else because we'd been struggling so much this year for our standards," Dancer said. "Having five freshmen out of six (players) out there in the first round and four out of six in the second round and for these guys to be in that moment and have that big comeback win on the opponent's court ... it was a different experience."

Perry leading softball to new heights

At least Mike Thomas got one hire right.

While Thomas' hires in football and the two basketball teams in worse shape than he found them, the former Illini athletics director gave Illinois softball the right leader at the right time.

Tyra Perry took over a softball program that hadn't made an NCAA Tournament in five straight seasons. Perry is now 2-for-2 in reaching the Big Dance and is lifting softball to a must-see spring attraction at Illinois.

After leading the Illini to a 37-18 mark (including a 14-8 Big Ten record) this season, Perry is 73-41 overall at Illinois. The Illini were 50-53 in Sullivan's final two seasons.

What's changed?

"I'd definitely say just expectation," Illinois senior outfielder and All-America candidate Nicole Evans said. "We've had good teams in the past with our previous coaches, but Coach Perry came in expecting us to be in the tournament, expecting us to break records, expecting all those things. Just realizing all those expectations has really changed the program around."

Of course, Evans was a nice parting gift left by Sullivan. The outfielder is slashing .361/.485/.806 with 17 home runs, 55 RBI and 38 runs scored. Senior pitcher Breanna Wonderly has been an absolute workhorse, pitching 212.2 of the Illini's 367.2 innings pitched this season with a 2.73 ERA.

Illinois is 8-10 all-time in the NCAA Tournament. Perry's crew, which went 1-2 in the NCAA Regional last year, hopes to improve the Illini softball image this weekend at Kentucky Regional in Lexington. The Illini will have a national television platform (ESPN) in its NCAA opener 11 a.m. Friday against Marshall.

"We've watched people like golf and tennis and how amazing they are at their sports," Illini sophomore pitcher Taylor Edwards said. "Just going in and being a part of that and getting to their level, it's amazing. We definitely look up to those teams and we definitely just want to do as much as we can for our school."

Illini Inquirer Top Stories