The Daily Illini sports staff votes on men’s player, women’s player, coaches of the year
May 10, 2021
Men’s player of the year: Ayo Dosunmu (basketball)
In an unanimous vote, junior Ayo Dosunmu was selected as The Daily Illini’s men’s player of the year.
The Chicago native put together a historic third season in Champaign, as he was the only player in the last 11 seasons to finish the year with an average of at least 20 points, six rebounds and five assists per game, eventually ending up with 20.1, 6.3 and 5.3, respectively.
Dosunmu also received the Bob Cousy Award for the best collegiate point guard, though this was one of several accolades he received.
Despite playing the Big Ten tournament with a mask following a facial injury suffered near the end of the regular season, Dosunmu was the conference tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and was named to the All-Tournament Team. For his dominant play all season, the junior guard was an unanimous First-Team All-Big Ten selection.
He also was an unanimous First-Team All-American, receiving first-team honors from USA Today, Associated Press, National Association of Basketball Coaches, U.S. Basketball Writers Association, Sporting News, Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports. USA Today also named Dosunmu its National Player of the Year.
Though he dominated on a nightly basis, Dosunmu will forever be remembered as one of the biggest factors for the men’s basketball program’s turnaround, as his decision to stay in state and play for Illinois dramatically shifted the tides for an underperforming program.
After three seasons at Illinois, including a surprise return this year, Dosunmu’s time in Champaign is officially over, as he has declared for the 2021 NBA Draft. Though he will no longer compete as an Illini, his jersey will hang in the rafters at State Farm Center, recognizing one of the best players to ever compete in an Illinois uniform.
Honorable mentions: Zeke Clark (tennis), Ian Skirkey (gymnastics), Adrien Dumont de Chassart (golf)
Women’s player of the year: Sydney Sickels (softball)
Pitching is a mental game. Junior pitcher Sydney Sickels continued to dominate in the circle, as she has learned to master the art of pitching.
At the start of the season, Sickels pitched six scoreless innings against Rutgers Feb. 26, allowing two hits and striking out seven. Her exceptional execution in the circle continued throughout the Illini’s first two weekends at Sleepy Hollow Sports Complex in Leesburg, Florida.
She threw a complete game win against Michigan State March 11, recording 11 strikeouts, no walks and no earned runs in game one. March 13 against Penn State was no different. Sickels tossed a no-hitter, throwing the 14th no-hitter in Illini softball program history. She did this all while pitching a complete game, striking out 10 batters, allowing one run and walking none.
Her dominant weekend in Florida culminated with the Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honors March 16; she went 3-0 with a 0.00 ERA in 21 innings pitched, 31 strikeouts without allowing a single walk, along with back-to-back one-hit, 10 strikeouts games.
Sickels continued to excel as the season progressed. She threw two complete-game shutouts against Wisconsin April 2 and April 4, recording 12 strikeouts in both appearances and throwing a one-hitter in the April 4 matchup.
April 6, Sickels received her second Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honors. She finished the series against Wisconsin with no earned runs and 24 strikeouts, allowing only six hits and three walks in 14.0 innings pitched.
With each new four-game series comes a dominant pitching performance. On April 23, Sickels struck out 11 of the 30 batters faced in a complete-game win against Indiana. Her ongoing progression allowed her to strike out 10 batters in another complete-game win versus Northwestern April 30, and she finished with a 5.33 strikeout to walk ratio in three starts versus Northwestern April 30, May 1 and May 2.
Honorable mentions: Taylor Kuper (volleyball), Nicole Biondi (gymnastics), Kendra Pasquale (soccer)
Coaches of the year: Brad Dancer (men’s tennis), Mike Small (men’s golf), Brad Underwood (men’s basketball)
When reflecting on the coach of the year, it’s hard to separate this trio of coaches, as they each guided their respective teams to conference tournament titles.
Brad Dancer is in his 17th year at Illinois, and he has continued to grow his legacy in Champaign Urbana. The men’s tennis team’s Big Ten tournament win wasn’t anything new, as he now has coached three teams to conference tournament titles, though this is his first since 2015. Dancer led the Illini to one of the best regular seasons in program history, guiding the team to a 21-2 record heading into the NCAA tournament, and the team hosted the first and second rounds. With a stacked cast of seniors, Illinois remains one of the most prominent teams on the college tennis map.
Mike Small has grown accustomed to conference success, as this is the men’s golf program’s sixth consecutive Big Ten tournament title. Small now is in his 20th season at Illinois, and he has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year 11 times. This year, Small coached the team to five tournament titles, including a historic 38-stroke win at the Louisiana Classics, the largest margin of victory in the tournament’s history. The team will compete at the NCAA Stillwater Regional in Oklahoma starting May 17.
Brad Underwood led a stacked Illini men’s basketball team to a record 16 conference wins and an overall record of 24-7, while also sealing an NCAA tournament berth for the first time since 2013. The fourth-year Illinois coach finished the year ranked second in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, secured a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance for the first time since 2005 and coached a consensus First-Team All-American and likely first-round draft pick in Ayo Dosunmu.