WCIA — 2021 marked a return to normalcy for college athletics, with all Illinois sports back to their respective seasons. There were plenty of ups and downs. WCIA 3 Sports closes out the year with you by looking back at the Top 10 Illini Storylines of 2021.

#10: Soccer

Women’s soccer played two seasons in one calendar year after the 2020 fall season was postponed due to COVID-19. But the silver lining of it all was the grand opening of Demirjian Park. The Illini hosted the Big Ten tournament in the Spring at their new $18 million facility.

“We’re just excited to show everyone what Demirjian Park means to us,” says senior Hope Breslin. “If you’re going to come to our field and play us we’re going to show you we’re going to do everything we can to protect the field.”

#9: Baseball/Softball

More new facilities began progress, as baseball and softball broke ground in April. The $8 million baseball training center, will sit adjacent to Illinois field, and includes a new training center, locker rooms, and more.

“It’s just an awesome day,” said Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb at the groundbreaking. “It’s something that will help our program tremendously from a recruiting aspect, it’s going to help us from a development aspect.”

Softball is also getting a $6 million complex. The indoor training space with have a full infield, hitting and pitching cages, and more.

#8: Wrestling

Longtime wrestling coach Jim Heffernan retired after 29 years with the program in the Spring. He finished his career with 13 Top-10 finishes at the NCAA Championships. Mike Poeta was announced as the new head coach in April.

“I’ve been driving into work like, ‘How am I even in this position, I can’t believe how lucky I am,'” said Poeta. “Back 17 years ago when Mark Johnson and [Heffernan] brought me in, this would have been a dream but I did not know this would be a reality.”

Poeta was on Heffernan’s staff the past four seasons and is one of the Illini all-time greats as a three-time All-American.

#7: Gymnastics

Women’s gymnastics ended their season in the NCAA regional final, coming off a third-place finish at the Big Ten Championship.

For the men, Ian Skirky won his first national championship on the pommel horse, while earning an All-American honor along with Connor McCool. Michael Fletcher was also crowned a Big Ten Champion on the vault.

#6: Track and Field

Track and Field hosted the Big Ten Championship, where the men took home gold in the 4X400-meter relay. Jonathan Wells won the high jump title, and Jon Davis and Olivia Howell finished first in the 1500 meter race.
The Illini also send three individuals to the NCAA outdoor championship Meet, with Howell making it to the final of the 1500.