WCIA — It was a year full of ups and downs for Illinois athletic programs with some teams like men’s gymnastics and women’s tennis thriving, while others like football and men’s basketball are still trying to rebuild. WCIA 3 Sports looks back at the Top 10 storylines from 2018.
The Illini finished with an 11-8-1 record, ranking 5th in the Big 10. It was a huge improvement for the Illini, coming off their worst record in program history. They ended with a Big 10 tournament semifinal loss to No.1 seed Penn State, barely missing the NCAA tournament.
“Sometimes it takes two or three years of hard work to get what you want, and this is a season that just proves that,” head coach Janet Rayfield said.
#9: Facility Renovations
Over the last year, several projects took off including the renovation of the field and facilities for soccer and track & field. The construction of an indoor baseball facility is another major project, these will be completed in 2021. The $79.2 million construction to build the new football performance center broke ground as well, with the project set to be completed prior to the 2019 football season.
“It’s amazing, it’s been a long process and I think Josh Whitman’s vision is right on,” Illinois senior associate director of athletics for capital projects and facilities Brett Stillwell said.
#8) Isaiah Martinez
The four-time NCAA wrestling national finalist closed out his senior season with a runner-up finish. He won two national titles in 2015 and 2016, and finished his career with four Big Ten titles.
“That’s basically what my coaches told me when they were recruiting me, ‘We want you to be our guy.'”
Both the baseball and softball teams missed the NCAA tournament, likely finishing one or two wins away from a securing a spot in the Big Dance. Baseball went 33-20, fueled by a historic season from Bren Spillane. The junior first baseman won several national awards, including Player of the Year, and was drafted in the third round by the Cincinnati Reds.
“Did I think we were deserving? I do,” Baseball head coach Dan Hartleb said. “But we also had opportunities throughout the year to win some games that we let slip away.”
Softball finished 37-18 in head coach Tyra Perry’s third season. The No. 6 seed in the Big Ten tournament, the Illini nearly upset No. 3 Indiana in the quarterfinals, losing on a walk-off homer. It’s the second time in program history where both the Illini baseball and softball teams won 30 or more games.
The women’s team finished 3rd at the NCAA Regional in head coach Natalie Walsh’s first season, led by Rae Balthazar. The All-American qualified for the NCAA individual finals on floor exercise.
The men’s team continued its run as one of the best programs in the country with a third place finish at the NCAA Championship. Junior Alex Diab, the 4-time All-American, won a national championship title on the still rings.
“My next biggest goal is to win a team championship,” Diab said. “And it’s gonna be really cool next year that our NCAA’s is gonna be here in Campaign.”