United Illini

By BobLa Gesse

On the surface, football doesn’t have much in common with 16-inch softball.

But for the Illinois football team, softball could show why this year might turn out different than last year on the football field.

For the past several years, the Illini have had a Wednesday softball league in the summer. Seniors draft teams; offensive players play with defensive players. Freshmen are teamed with upperclassman. In the end, playoffs decide a champion.

2003 was the first time the softball league wasn’t formed in several years.

“Last year for the 1-11 season the seniors decided not to do it,” said senior wide receiver and reigning softball champion Mark Kornfeld. “And for whatever reason, in retrospect, it would have been something nice to do. We went ahead and did that this summer and it is just nice to get everybody together.”

The team has shown the ability to come together. Even if it is just for softball. It is through little things like softball leagues that this year’s team is showing it is different than the team of 2003.

“We’ve done a lot of things in the offseason to become a closer team and not to be divided,” Kornfeld said. “We’re going to stay together as a family.”

As a family, the Illini will take on anyone that picks on one of their brothers – including the media. In a press conference Monday, senior right tackle Bucky Babcock answered question after question comparing this year to last year.

Senior defensive tackle Mike Maloney couldn’t take it. When he got to the podium he let the press know his feelings.

“I heard you guys ask Bucky what negative things you’ve heard in class and the only negative things I’ve heard are from the press,” Maloney said. “All of our fans that I know of are supportive of us. Just talking about losing got me fired up.”

Maloney spoke with a passion. His eyes were as big as Mike Singletary’s before a big play. Maloney paced back and forth while he spoke. His hands trembled.

Maloney was ready to take the field and face Western Michigan. And game day was five days away.

Maloney showed how much it hurt him to lose and how bad he wanted to turn around Illinois football.

During Maloney’s speech, one thing stuck out to me.

His enthusiasm would be expected out of a MAC team when facing a Big Ten team. The power conference team never shows that emotion when facing an unknown MAC team.

For Western Michigan, it’s a chance to prove its program is as good as one from the Big Ten. The players from the smaller conference will do anything to beat the team from the BCS conference.

The MAC teams usually see themselves as backed into a corner when these games come about.

Maloney sees Illinois backed into a corner.

MAC teams may have never faced a nationally known program needing a win as bad as the Illini do.

With a win, people will talk less about the debacle of 2003. One win will give the players proof that the program is better than its collective performances over the last year have shown.

“We would like to get everybody to quit talking about the past, but we realize it is not going to happen unless we win some games,” Kornfeld said.

That is, wins on the football field. Not the softball diamond.

Bobby La Gesse is a senior in communications. He can be reached at [email protected]