2018/19 was definitely the school year where I paid attention to more non-big-two sports than any other year. And I'm not just talking about the volleyball run. I think I know more about this softball team than any of the past 10 teams. Perhaps it's rooted in wanting to see an Illini team - any Illini team - win games. The last two football seasons have been 2-10 and 4-8, and the last two basketball seasons have been 14-18 and 12-21, so this is a fanbase starving for wins. Any wins.
What did we get this spring? Illini teams falling flat. So much hope during the season and then SPLAT in the postseason. Honestly, only the women's golf team avoided the SPLAT. To wit:
- The baseball team, ranked as high as #20 two weeks ago, failed to win a postseason game, going 0-2 in the Big Ten Tournament and then 0-2 in the NCAA Tournament. 14 days ago there was an article on FightingIllini.com titled "No. 20 Illinois Heads to Omaha with Title, Hosting Hopes" (and both were true - hosting a regional as one of the top 16 seeds was completely within reach) and then an 0-4 finish to the season, punctuated by a loss to tiny Jacksonville State in a game the Illini led 4-0 in the seventh. The second-highest hopes for the baseball team this decade and then a big ol' splat.
- The softball team, well, it's probably unfair to list the softball team as a splat. The bar to clear this season, I think, was "make the NCAA Tournament" and they did that, even winning a consolation/elimination game in the process (on a walkoff HR). They were, however, ranked #25 in late February, and with a team led by several seniors, hopes were high for a breakthrough season. The turning point seemed to be a 9-8 loss to Michigan in April. The Illini led 8-5 with two outs in the seventh and allowed Michigan to score four runs to win. That began a tailspin (7 losses in a row) and they never really recovered.
- NCAA Tennis switched to super-regionals and then an eight-team playoff at a finals site (just like baseball and softball) this year. The old format was the basketball format - 64 teams whittled down to four and the last weekend the Final Four play for the title. But this year it was 16 teams coming out of regionals, a "super-regional" to decide the final eight, and then eight teams going to the "finals". Ranked as high as #7, the Illini men had every intention of being one of those eight teams. They had beaten #7-at-the-time UCLA and had gone down to the wire against eventual national champion Texas (can't lose any closer - Texas won 4-3 by taking the final match 7-5 in the third set tiebreak). The Illini hosted the regional but were upset by California (in Champaign) 4-1. Yeah, that's a splat.
- Women's tennis was similar to softball, I think. Cleared the bar by an inch. The goal was the NCAA Tournament and the ladies got there. But in the first round, in a match against Arizona State, a bit of a splat. A 4-0 loss and the NCAA's are over before they began. The ladies probably weren't getting past #5 Duke in the next round, but the 0-fer against Arizona State will leave a bad taste all summer.
- Men's golf looked to be heading for an epic splat - worst season in a dozen years splat - but two late tournament victories salvaged the season and provided a large amount of hope for the future. With the departures the last two seasons, this was always going to be a rebuilding year, so the goals were to win the Big Ten again to keep the streak alive and to qualify for the NCAA Championships again. Not only did they win the Big Ten, they won the regional, locking up their spot in the NCAA Championships. And winning a regional means you''ve put yourself in position to make the top-8 match play. The result? A splat. Finished 27th out of 30 teams. The lowest finish the past half-dozen years was last year's 11th, so 27th, by Illini golf standards, was bad.
That brings us to women's golf. (Yes, I know I'm skipping track & field here, but that's not really a sport one can follow on a team basis. It's more of an individual sport to me, so here's hoping Devin Quinn can make the final in the 100m dash this weekend.)
The women's golf team wins the spring sports medal from IlliniBoard (it's one of those yogurt lid/paper clip medals like from The Office, but I'm guessing they will cherish it). Not only did they qualify for their first-ever NCAA Championships, they finished 9th, just two strokes out of the match play finals. One Auburn double bogey somewhere and they would have been in a playoff for match play.
When I previewed the spring sports back in February, I wrote this about the men's team:
Because if they don't, they'll be getting smack-talked by the other team that shares the Demirjian Golf Practice Facility, one which is currently ranked higher than them. The women's team is lead by one senior (Bing Singhsumalee) and one junior (Tristyn Nowlin), but again, the bulk of the contributions come from the freshmen. So, uh, heads up men's team.
Let the summer smack talk begin. The women's team? 9th place finish. Men's team? T27. Gentlemen, please give up the honor on the tees at the Lauritsen/Wohlers golf facility this summer.
Digging up that preview, I also noticed that I wrote this:
I think I should have called this "Slapdash - six ranked teams?" because it's certainly possible that all six teams could finish the spring in the top-25. Men's tennis and women's golf for sure, and men's golf pretty much has to get there, but yes, it's possible all six could eventually be ranked.
Five of the six were eventually ranked in the top-25. I think women's tennis was the only sport to not be ranked this spring. The postseason results? Men's golf 27th out of 30, men's tennis upset at home as the seeded team, women's tennis lost 4-0 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, softball went 1-2 at the NCAA's, baseball went 0-2. Women's golf, with their first ever NCAA Championships berth and their 9th-place finish, stands alone as the only successful postseason among the six. (Although it should be noted - both softball and women's tennis cleared the bar set for them. If we're handing out splat medals, baseball gets the gold, men's tennis gets the silver, and men's golf gets the bronze. These are not medals you want to earn.)
Which means that next year is a big year for, like, every male sport on campus. Golf? You got your mulligan - now get back into the top-10. Tennis? Everyone returns - get to the final eight at the NCAA Championships. Baseball? No more postseason wilting.
Football and basketball? Oh, you know, just two Time To Win seasons back-to-back with millions of dollars in coaching contracts hanging in the balance.