Illini sports update: Wrestling, gymnastics, volleyball teams off to undefeated starts
January 25, 2021
Just 10 months ago, the sports world came to a sudden halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Winter sport playoffs and tournaments were canceled, and almost the entirety of spring seasons were never played. Now, sports have returned with nine different Illini teams currently in action, though multiple games for multiple teams have already interrupted competition. Regardless, let’s take a look at how these programs have fared so far in this unusual, unpredictable and unprecedented season.
The expectations for the men’s basketball team were through the roof to start the season, as the team were ranked No. 8 in the AP preseason rankings. After opening the season with three straight wins against North Carolina A&T, Chicago State and Ohio, Illinois traveled to take on No. 2 Baylor in one of the most highly anticipated matchups in recent history, though they would ultimately fall 82-69. The Illini would then fall to the Missouri Tigers in the Braggin’ Rights game for the third straight season.
The team entered the season as one of the favorites to win the Big Ten, but they now sit fourth in the conference at 6-3 after losses to Rutgers in the second Big Ten game of the season and back-to-back defeats at home to Maryland and Ohio State. Though Illinois has beaten Minnesota, Penn State twice, Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern, the team has yet to face any of the “big boys” of the Big Ten. With the team’s toughest stretch yet to come (they still have to face Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin (twice), Ohio State and Minnesota), these next few games will help determine where the Illini truly stand among Big Ten teams and among March Madness-caliber teams.
Despite losing last season’s leading scorer Petra Holešínská, who transferred to North Carolina, the Illini opened the season strong, winning two of its first three games against non-conference opposition: a 68-49 win over Indiana State to open the season and a close 53-50 victory over Omaha.
In Big Ten play, however, the team has dearly missed its top scorer, falling in six straight games to open its Big Ten campaign while averaging under 60 points per game while allowing just over 80 points each contest. But the team has also faced some of the best teams in the conference, including Iowa, Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan and Northwestern. Illinois has a stretch of winnable games coming up, as the team has six straight games against unranked opponents.
After last competing on March 7, the men’s gymnastics team returned to action on Jan. 15 against Northern Illinois in a unique manner: the meet was conducted virtually for the first time ever. The No. 3 Illini dominated in their opening meet, winning 384.750-310.100, winning all six event titles: sophomore Evan Manivong won on floor (13.600) and vault (14.550), redshirt senior Tommy Mistretta took pommel horse honors (13.700), graduate student Danny Graham won on rings (13.700), freshman Logan Myers won on bars (13.500) and freshman Will Hauke and senior Jordan Kovach won on high bar (13.000). Mistretta, Myers and Hauke took home their first career event titles.
Illinois also defeated Ohio State to open its Big Ten campaign on Saturday, 402.550-396.250. The Illini took home four event titles, including an all-around title from junior Hamish Carter. Junior Ian Skirkey won on pommel horse (14.550), Kovach and Graham won on rings (13.750), Manivong won on vault (14.750) and Carter won on bars (13.400). Manivong, Kovach and Graham all won titles in two consecutive meets.
Like the men’s team, the women’s gymnastics team competed on Jan. 15 for the first time since early March. After breakout performances from several Illini gymnasts last season, the team looked solid in its first meet, taking down Nebraska 195.475-193.400 and winning three of the four events. Individually, sophomore Lexi Powe won on vault (9.825), freshman Kaitlyn Ewald won on bars (9.900) and junior Shaylah Scott won on floor (9.875). Three Illini made their debuts, Ewald, who won her first career event title, Amelia Knight and Abby Mueller.
Illinois took home first place in a tri-meet with Rutgers and Maryland, beating the Terrapins 195.525-195.300 and the Scarlet Knights 195.525-192.500. Sophomore Mia Takekawa tied for the bars event title (9.875) while Scott and senior Kylie Noonan tied for the floor title with a score of 9.875.
Swim and dive
After receiving news that all sports would be canceled for the remainder of the season in the middle of a meet in March, the Illini swimming and diving team returned to action on Jan. 16. The team dropped its season opener to Purdue 173-122, though freshman Cara Bognar and junior Abigail Cabush both had multiple first-place finishes. Cabush won two freestyle events, 100-yard (51.77 seconds) and 200-yard (1:51.37), while Bognar took first place in 200-yard butterfly (2:02.56) and 500-yard freestyle (4:59.59).
The team bounced back on Saturday, however, picking their first win of the season against Nebraska, 164-136, the program’s first conference dual-meet road win since 2015. Bognar and Cabush led the team again, with Bognar picking up wins in 200-yard butterfly (2:03.62), 500-yard freestyle (4:59.260 and 400-yard individual medley (4:27.75) while Cabush took first-place honors in 100-yard (51.91 seconds) and 200-yard (1:52.11) freestyle. The team also finished first in the 200-yard medley relay (1:46.20) and the 400-yard freestyle relay (3:30.85).
Track and field
The men’s and women’s track and field squads opened their seasons in Madison, Wisconsin, in the Badger Icebreaker on Jan. 16, winning eight events, including women’s long jump, women’s high jump, men’s weight throw, men’s long jump and men’s shot put, after nearly 11 months since their last meet. Freshman Nick Drayden, sophomore Olivia Howell, redshirt sophomore Will Rezny, juniors Lucy Lux-Rulon, Nya Carr and Bret Dannis, redshirt junior Rebecca Craddock and graduate transfer Manning Plater all picked up wins in their first meets of the season.
In the Larry Wieczorek Invitational on Friday and Saturday hosted in Iowa City, Iowa, the Illini won three events, including the men’s 3000m premier, men’s 600m premier and women’s 400m dash, though the men’s team finished third and the women’s team finished fifth out of five total schools. Redshirt senior Jon Davis took home the 3000m premier, while sophomore Aman Thornton won the men’s 600m premier, finishing with a time of 1:18.06, the ninth-fastest time in school history. Sophomore Danni Stoughton took home the final event victory for the Illini, finishing first in the 400m dash.
After not playing since Dec. 6, 2019, the volleyball team opened up its 2021 campaign with two matches on the road against Iowa. The team is almost entirely transformed from its last game, though the Illini picked up two wins to start off its new season on a strong note. In the first match, senior Megan Cooney led the team with 17 kills, while senior Kylie Bruder registered her first career double-double with 21 assists and 10 digs, both career-highs, as the Illini took down the Hawkeyes 3-1 (25-20, 23-25, 25-15, 25-23) in dominant fashion.
On Saturday, the Illini carried their momentum into the match and pulled off the sweep, winning 3-1 (25-20, 25-13, 19-25, 25-13). Redshirt freshman Ellie Holzman put together a solid performance, finishing with a match-high 15 kills, while Bruder and redshirt sophomore Diana Brown had 20 and 19 assists, respectively.
Arguably the most successful Illini program so far this season, the men’s wrestling team is off to an undefeated start. The team has won all four meets, including against three ranked opponents: No. 8 Ohio State, No. 22 Wisconsin and No. 17 Purdue. The team is also ranked in the top-10 nationally, currently sitting at No. 7.
Sophomores Lucas Byrd and Luke Luffman and redshirt senior Dylan Duncan are all off to undefeated starts, helping guide the team to a 4-0 start. The team looks like a true Big Ten contender thus far, though they will be tested in a tri-meet with No. 1 Iowa and No. 2 Michigan next weekend.