Illinois athletic power expands beyond football and basketball


Austin Yattoni

Illinois setter Jordyn Poulter (1) sets the ball to Ali Bastianelli (5) during the match against Arkansas at Huff Hall on Friday, August 26. The Illini won 3-0.

By Gavin Good, Assistant sports editor

The Illinois athletic department generated $96.2 million in revenue during 2016, as reported by USA Today.

Though that figure lags behind Big Ten powerhouses Ohio State ($170.7 million) and Michigan ($163.8 million), it’s a sizable chunk of money.

The vast majority of that revenue comes from two sources: the football and men’s basketball programs.

While Illinois football holds its fair share of game day traditions and has a vibrant tailgating setting, it can be hard to truly enjoy the college football experience without that last key ingredient: wins.

Wins have been hard to come by for Illini football, and more recently, our proud basketball tradition has fallen victim to mediocrity, missing four-straight NCAA tournaments for the first time since 1980.

Director of Athletics Josh Whitman has ushered in optimism on the football front with his hiring of Lovie Smith in 2016 and has brought in Brad Underwood to restore the basketball program to prominence. However, the mantra of #WeWillWin can only be a rallying cry of the University for a limited time before results are needed to back it up.

Luckily for Whitman, students and the Illinois fan base, there is a lot going well for the Illini in other sports.

Illinois golf, led by PGA Tour veteran head coach Mike Small, has been arguably the top golf program in the nation for much of the last decade.

The Illini have starlets Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy both returning in the fall as seniors, and they are surrounded by a talented supporting cast that will be one of the favorites to take home the program’s first ever NCAA championship.

Like men’s golf, the Illinois wrestling team has sustained a long period of year-to-year success and regularly has Huff Hall buzzing during the season.

Isaiah Martinez is returning for his senior year after falling in the NCAA title match, his first year on campus without winning it all. To be fair, he moved up a weight class and still almost did it, which would have made winning it all that much more extraordinary.

The softball program has been revitalized as Tyra Perry has brought cohesion and confidence to the team, which is set to make its second-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance in Perry’s second season.

Though all-time home run leader Nicole Evans and ace pitcher Breanna Wonderly are graduating, they leave behind a talented roster that should be serious contenders in the Big Ten going forward.

The fan base has responded to the team’s success this season, making Eichelberger Field an energized, exciting place to watch games and see the team win.

Despite an up-and-down 2016 season that ended with coach Kevin Hambly departing for powerhouse Stanford, Illinois volleyball now has Chris Tamas at the helm, and an aura of optimism is surrounding the team.

Volleyball has been wildly popular at Illinois, with Huff Hall perennially full of thousands of fans, and the team has generally rewarded their supporters with wins.

The Illini made the NCAA championship game in 2011, before losing to UCLA in four sets, and the boisterous student section, known as the Spike Squad, helps to make Huff Hall a fortress of intimidation for opposing teams.

Coming off a down year, the soccer team that has made the NCAA tournament in 10 of Janet Rayfield’s 15 years in charge of the program, will be looking to get back to their winning ways.

Though the team graduated 11 seniors, contributors like Alicia Barker—who started every game in the Illini defense—and co-leading scorers Patricia George and Kara Marbury will ensure that the team will remain competitive in the future.

The breadth of Illinois sporting success—other than in its two major revenue-generating sports—stretches far, and not all have been touched on.

Illinois baseball has a large following and exudes a minor league atmosphere some organizations would envy, all while being free to the public.

Men’s tennis is a powerhouse program and has its star Aleks Vukic, who has won 21-straight matches, returning for his senior year along with a stacked roster.

Though not a varsity sport, the Illinois club hockey team draws sizable crowds for their home games and has had triumphs in past years, including a 38-0 team and an ACHA national title in the 2007-2008 season.

The list goes on. It is important to remember that the University has much to offer with its varsity sports, as well as its club programs, and they remain an appealing attraction for students and the community alike.

Gavin is a sophomore in Media.
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