Year in review: Three Illinois teams win conference tournament titles, several student-athletes earn First-Team All-Big Ten honors


Cameron Krasucki

Fans cheering during the football game against Maryland on Aug. 17. Sports Digital Content Editor, Claire O’Brien, highlights some of the biggest Illini Athletics moments from the year.

By Claire O'Brien, Sports Digital Content Editor

This year was an eventful one for Illinois sports. Let’s recap.

1. Athletes got an extra year of eligibility (All of 2021)

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, any athlete competing in sports in the 2020-21 school year got an extra year of eligibility.

2. Dozens of Illini earned First-Team All Big-Ten honors (All of 2021)

Several athletes earned accolades from the Big Ten conference. Olivia Howell (track & field/ cross country) was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and was First Team All-Big Ten in both indoor and outdoor track & field. Many other athletes earned First-Team All-Big Ten honors, including Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn (men’s basketball), Kerby Joseph (football), Megan Cooney (volleyball), Adrien Dumont de Chassart, Michael Feagles and Jerry Ji (men’s golf), Zeke Clark, Aleks Kovacevic and Siphosothando Montsi (men’s tennis), Jackson Raper (baseball), Jon Davis (cross country/track & field), Michael Fletcher (men’s gymnastics), Manning Plater (track & field), Kashief King, Robert Williams, Jason Thormo and Aman Thornton (outdoor track & field) and Kailee Powell (softball).

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    Dumont de Chassart was named Big Ten Co-Golfer of the Year. Thornton was named Indoor Freshman of the Year.

    3. COVID-19 continued to affect college athletics (All of 2021)

    Despite the vaccine being widely available, the Illinois athletics program was impacted by COVID-19. In November, Illinois wrestling withdrew from the Mountaineer Invitational due to COVID-19, and head football coach Bret Bielema missed the game against Iowa the following week after testing positive for COVID-19.

    Athletic officials noted the wrestling team was the first one to withdraw from a sporting event since the beginning of the pandemic. Illinois men’s basketball canceled its final game of 2021 against Florida A&M after Illinois players tested positive for COVID-19.

    4. Illinois men’s basketball won the Big Ten tournament (March 14) 

    It seems like this happened 20 years ago given that 2021 has been a long year, but just this past March, Illinois won the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament title. The Illini were then given a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, which marked their first appearance in the competition since 2013, but lost to in-state rival Loyola Chicago in the second round. Illinois was last a 1-seed in 2005, when the team advanced to the national championship game.

    5. Demirjian Park opened (April 6)

    After much anticipation, Demirjian Park officially opened in April. The park is home to Illinois soccer and track & field, and the park hosted the 2021 Big Ten outdoor track championships.

    6. Men’s tennis won the Big Ten tournament title (May 2)

    This year, Illinois men’s tennis won the Big Ten tournament against Ohio State, 4-3. The title boiled down to the final match where Zeke Clark defeated Ohio State’s Kyle Seelig to win the title for Illinois — its first since 2015.

    7. Men’s golf won the Big Ten tournament title minutes later (May 2)

    Illinois men’s golf won the Big Ten tournament in May. The Illini have won the Big Ten several years in a row, and 2021’s tournament came down to the wire. Illinois won the tournament by one stroke.

    8. NCAA finally took a (small) step toward gender equity

    The NCAA has been systematically underinvesting in women’s sports. Last March, after Oregon women’s basketball player Sedona Prince highlighted the disparities on her TikTok, the NCAA launched an investigation that found the organization had been underinvesting in women’s sports. NCAA president Mark Emmert has since announced some changes, like moving both tournaments to the same city and using “March Madness” branding for both the men’s and women’s tournaments.

    9. Both the men’s and women’s basketball programs underwent massive coaching overhauls

    Both the men’s and women’s basketball programs had assistant coaching overhauls this past offseason. Former Illinois women’s basketball coaches Scott Merritt and Vernette Skeete went to Wisconsin and Texas A&M, respectively. Head coach Nancy Fahey hired Corry Irvin from St. Xavier and Hernando Planells from William Jessup to the coaching staff. 

    Former men’s basketball assistant coaches Chin Coleman and Orlando Antigua departed for Kentucky soon after the basketball season, and Stephen Gentry went to Gonzaga. Geoff Alexander was promoted to an assistant coaching role, and head coach Brad Underwood brought aboard Tim Anderson from DePaul and Chester Frazier from Virginia Tech to the coaching staff.

    10. Name, image and likeness legislation was passed and enacted (July 1)

    After years of pushing, the NCAA finally allowed players to sign name, image and likeness deals. The organization, well-known for its micromanagement, relented when a number of states passed NIL laws, and Congress seemed unable and unwilling to act.

    Congress still has not passed any NIL legislation despite desperate lobbying by the NCAA. The NCAA also lost a Supreme Court case regarding its monopoly status earlier this year, and the court seems to be willing to rule in favor of athletes in future cases.

    Illinois men’s basketball Kofi Cockburn was suspended for the first three games this season after he sold merch in June; he would have been OK had he done so in July, when Illinois’ law took effect.

    11. Bobby Roundtree passed away at the age of 23 (July 16)

    Roundtree was a football player at Illinois who was paralyzed in a boating accident in 2019. He was hoping to play football again at Illinois, but he sadly passed away in July. The Illinois football team honored Roundtree this season by carrying a “97 Strong” flag when taking the field this season. Roundtree wore No. 97 for Illinois.

    12. Team USA volleyball won gold at the Olympic games (July 23 to Aug. 8)

    Nine former Illini competed in Tokyo. Among them: former Illinois volleyball players Michelle Bartsch-Hackley and Jordyn Poulter, who won gold for Team USA. Erin Virtue was a coach for the winning team.

    13. Ayo Dosunmu was drafted by the Chicago Bulls (July 29)

    Dosunmu was drafted in the second round of the NBA draft as the 38th pick by his hometown Chicago Bulls. He is averaging 6.4 points and 18.4 minutes per game but recently missed some time due to being placed in the league’s health and safety protocols. 

    14. Illinois dazzled at the Paralympic games (Aug. 24 to Sept. 5)

    Former Illini dominated at the Paralympics: Tatyana McFadden won gold in the 4×100-meter universal relay, silver in the 800-meter and bronze in the 5,000-meter. 

    15. Head football coach Bret Bielema made his debut (Aug. 28)

    Bielema made his Illinois coaching debut in August. The event was the first one since March of 2020 in which fans were able to attend, and the Illini defeated the Nebraska Cornhuskers, 30-22. The team finished 5-7 in the season and narrowly missed a bowl game berth.

    16. Head wrestling coach Mike Poeta makes his debut (Nov. 6)

    Longtime Illinois wrestling coach Jim Heffernan announced his retirement in April. Shortly after, Illinois hired former Illini wrestler Mike Poeta as head coach. Illinois is 2-0 with wins over Tennessee-Chattanooga and SIU-Edwardsville (Illinois withdrew from the Mountaineer Invitational, and many of the other meets have no team score).

    17. Illinois volleyball advanced to the Sweet 16 (Dec. 4)

    Just a couple weeks ago, the Illinois women’s volleyball team advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. The Illini lost to No. 10 Nebraska, which lost to eventual champion Wisconsin. During the tournament run, Illinois defeated the 2020 national champion Kentucky, which marked head coach Chris Tamas’ 100th win at Illinois.



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