Five Illini athletes to watch in 2015

Jannelle Flaws (right) holds off a defender in Illinois’ game against Oakland on Friday, August 24.

By Kevin McCarthy

Friends and relatives from back home give me constant grief for the state of Illini athletics. And sometimes I agree with them. But other times, I point to five athletes, who serve as beacons of hope in the Illini darkness created by recent football and basketball troubles. These athletes will dominate their respective sports all year long, so when you get pestered by Illini haters, mention these five.

1. Nick Hardy, sophomore, men’s golf

The 2015 Big Ten Freshman of the Year continued his success this summer by qualifying for the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay as an amateur. Hardy shot an opening round 70 and followed that up with a 75 the following day to make the cut. Not only did Hardy make a cut that his childhood hero Tiger Woods did not make, he also outshot the 14-time major champion by a combined 11 strokes on Thursday and Friday.

The kid is the same age as me — there’s a self-esteem crusher — and he beat out arguably the most successful professional athlete of our generation. Very few people are better at hitting a little white ball around a big green field than this guy, so watch out for him this year.

2. Isaiah Martinez, redshirt sophomore, wrestling

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As a redshirt freshman last year, Martinez posted a perfect 35-0 record in route to becoming the national champion in the 157-pound weight class. Martinez was the first undefeated freshman to win a national title since Cael Sanderson of Iowa State did so in 1999. The legendary Sanderson went on to win four-straight national titles — a mark that Martinez believes he can achieve as well.

Ask any 157-pounder in the Big Ten about Isaiah and they’ll tell you all about the nightmares that ensued after facing him on the mat. The 2015-2016 season should be no different — his competitors will be begging for their mamas after just a few seconds out on the mat. Plenty of other will lose sleep, and maybe their lunch, every night until they have to square up with the brutish sophomore.

3. Jannelle Flaws, redshirt senior, soccer

Flaws is just two goals shy of tying the program record for career goals. The forward led the Big Ten in goals last season and tied for the NCAA lead in 2013. Her list of accolades and records is so long that Flaws was unanimously voted Big Ten Forward of the Year in 2014, becoming the first player to win the award in back-to-back seasons in school history.

She also holds the program record for most goals in a single season with 23. Not to mention, Flaws had to redshirt her freshman and sophomore seasons due to knee injuries. It’s incredible that she overcame that level of adversity and with two goals in the team’s season opener against Oakland, it already looks like Flaws is prepared for another stellar season.

4. Brandi Donnelly, sophomore, volleyball

Donnelly started all 34 matches at libero for the Illini in 2014. She ranked second in the nation amongst freshman last year in digs and had the second-most single-season digs in Illini history with 575. I can dig that.

Donnelly also plays for one of the best teams on campus — the Illini fell in the Sweet 16 last year to Florida. Expectations are even higher in 2015 — the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) ranked the University of Illinois eighth in the nation in its preseason poll.

5. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, freshman, football

Vaughn possesses a great combination of size and speed and should be a crucial part of Illinois’ rushing attack this year. Since Josh Ferguson is entering his senior season, Vaughn could be just one year away from becoming the starting running back. Vaughn ran for 2,646 yards and 45 touchdowns in his senior year at Pearl-Cohn high school in Nashville, Tenn., while averaging more than 11 yards a carry. If that doesn’t excite Illini football fans, I’m not sure what will. He was also a four-star recruit and had offers from Ohio State, Notre Dame, and many others.

Fortunately for Illini fans, Vaughn chose to play for the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl runner-ups over the national champion Buckeyes.

Kevin is a sophomore in Media.
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