Forget football; Superstars aplenty in other sports

By Anthony Zilis

As the fall sports season starts, most heads will turn to Juice Williams and the Illini football team.

But an Olympian, a national runner-up and a few members of All-Big Ten freshmen teams show there are more athletes Illini fans should keep an eye on this year.

With strong seasons in 2007, the Illinois soccer, women’s cross country and volleyball teams return star-studded rosters this year, with some of the nation’s top performers.

Other fall sports, including men’s and women’s tennis, men’s cross country and women’s basketball take hits, but return some of their top athletes from last year.

Here’s a look at some of the stars of the 2008 season for the Illini.

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Soccer – Emily Zurrer and Chichi Nweke

A Canadian Olympian, Zurrer anchors a defense that last year ranked third in the Big Ten in goals allowed and also returns All-Big Ten Freshman Danielle Kot. Last year, Zurrer, the 2006 Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Year, started every game and led the team in minutes played.

Zurrer, who made her first appearance for the Canadian Senior National team when she was 16, was a bright spot for Canada in their 2-1 loss to the United States in the Olympic quarterfinals, playing all 90 minutes plus 30 minutes of overtime.

On the other end of the field, the Illini will hope to replace the production of leading scorer Ella Masar with the junior forward Nweke. Last season Nweke, the 2006 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, led the Illini in assists and started all but one game. She hopes to fill the gaping hole left by Masar.

Volleyball – Laura DeBruler

In 2007, DeBruler tallied 577 kills, third most in school history, and was named All-Big Ten Honorable mention. The amazing part – she was only a freshman.

The sophomore outside hitter enters her sophomore season as a leader of a team that loses middle blocker Vicki Brown to graduation. The two-time Big Ten Player of the Week hopes to get the Illini back to the top of the Big Ten.

But with all of the accolades, DeBruler is focused on staying level-headed with a team-first mentality.

“I just want to stay consistent and be a stable contributor on the court, helping my teammates out whenever they need me,” DeBruler said in a press release.

Women’s cross country – Angela Bizzarri

Coming into her junior year, Bizzarri is already a two-time All-American in cross country. As a sophomore, Bizzarri also turned heads during the track season by finishing second nationally in the 5000 meters – a race she didn’t run until late in the season.

The 2007-08 Dike Eddleman Award winner as University of Illinois Female Athlete of the Year, Bizzarri will lead Illinois this season as they try to better their sixth-place finish at the NCAA National Championships and fourth-place finish in the Big Ten.

During her standout track and field season, cross country and assistant track coach Jeremy Rasmussen didn’t put a damper on any expectations for the junior.

“If she’s able to stay healthy,” Rasmussen said, “she’ll be able to do better than anyone who’s ever set a foot on this campus.”

Men’s cross country – Jacob Nachel and Jeremy Stevens

The men’s cross country team will take a hard hit this year after losing All-American Trent Hoerr to graduation. It will try to absorb this loss with improvements of their 2007 No. 2 and No. 3 runners, juniors Jacob Nachel and Jeremy Stevens.

Nachel competed in all six meets for the Illini last season and earned All-Region honors with his 24th place finish at the NCAA Midwest Regional Meet.

Coming off an injury in 2007, Stevens ran four meets for the Illini, highlighted by finishing 24th at the Big Ten Championships.

Men’s tennis – Marc Spicijaric and Billy Heiser

Spicijaric and Heiser are the only significant contributors remaining from a team that was national runner-up just two seasons ago.

The two will be expected to carry a huge weight on their shoulders as they fill spots in number one and two singles left by Ryan Rowe and Ruben Gonzales. Heiser said he and Spicijaric aren’t worried about the pressure.

“It puts us into more of a leadership role,” Heiser said.

Competing mainly in the three and four singles spots last year, Heiser, 29-13, and Spicijaric, 14-14, will be expected to compete with the best this year as the team attempts to recapture its past glory.

Heiser hopes not only to compete with the best, but be the best. He said his goal is to be an All-American in singles and doubles.

Women’s tennis – Megan Fudge

Unlike the standouts on the men’s team, Fudge won’t be taking anyone’s spot on the women’s tennis team.

That’s because she competed at No. 1 singles in almost every meet during the 2008 season and doesn’t underestimate the effect this seasoning will have on her in ’08.

“I was able to get a lot of experience and see what it would take to get to the top,” Fudge said.

This year, she hopes not only to help the Illini qualify for back-to-back NCAA tournaments for the first time since the 2003 and 2004 seasons, but to lead the team to a top-25 ranking.

Women’s basketball – Jenna Smith

In her sophomore season, Smith led the Illini women’s basketball team in points (18.3) and rebounds (9.4) and was name an Associated Press Honorable Mention All-American.

This year, Smith will be expected to carry a team that was only seconds away from an NCAA Tournament berth last season.

After Smith was named first team All-Big Ten, head coach Jolette Law said she thinks the hard-nosed, 6-foot-3 forward can accomplish some amazing things in an Illini uniform.

“If she continues to work hard she could definitely be the Player of the Year in this conference,” Law said in a press release.