Year in review: DI sports staff reflects on top moments

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Photo by Cary Frye / Illinois Athletics

Sophomore Siphosothando Montsi celebrates the win against USC on Feb. 13. Illinois beat the No. 1 team for tennis.

After the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic cut the 2020 season short, 2021 became the year for teams to bounce back and use the extra time off to improve their performances. With several seniors returning for a fifth year across Illinois’ 19 Division I sports, 2021 truly was an unforgettable season.
There were countless notable moments from every sport this year, but The Daily Illini sports staff chose just 12. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest results, moments and achievements from Illinois athletes and teams this year.
Note: The moments are listed chronologically, meaning the staff did not rank the moments after narrowing the list to 12.

1) Illinois beats No. 1 USC, No. 7 UVA in National Team Indoors Championship

Head coach Brad Dancer and the Illini got some good news before their 2021 campaign even began: Seniors Aleks Kovacevic, Zeke Clark, Noe Khlif and Vuk Budic all would use their extra year of eligibility and return to the team for a fifth season.
After struggling in 2020 and posting a 5-6 record prior to the remainder of the season being canceled, the Illini opened its 2021 regular season with a challenge, hosting the Intercollegiate Tennis Association National Team Indoor Championships. The tournament featured the unranked Illini and seven top-10 teams.
Despite being the underdog, Illinois put the tennis world on notice by beating then-No. 1 Southern California 4-1 in the opening round of the tournament behind a doubles point win and singles victories from Clark, Siphosothando Montsi and Kweisi Kenyatte.
Coming off an upset, Illinois immediately was humbled in the next round, falling to then-No. 4 Baylor 4-0. Though the loss was a brief dent in their momentum and confidence, the Illini earned the opportunity to compete for third place against No. 7 Virginia.
Unlike the match against USC, Illinois wasn’t able to pick up the doubles point. But the team bounced back in singles play, winning four of six matches to pull off the 4-3 upset win.
It wasn’t that easy, though. The Illini were down 3-1 at one point, needing singles victories from Hunter Heck, Montsi and Clark to turn the match on its head and finish in third place in a tournament that they were the lowest-ranked team in by a significant margin.

2) Abby Cabush breaks program’s 200-yard freestyle record twice in one season

Junior Abigail Cabush gets ready to dive into the water on April 23. (Photo Courtesy of Illini Athletics)

The 200-yard freestyle school record was held by Barbie Viney (1:47.96), which was set on Feb. 8, 2007. Nearly 14 years later, junior Abby Cabush set a new record for Illinois. In a meet against Wisconsin and Northwestern, Illinois fell, but she set a record and some personal bests for the team. Cabush’s time and new record for the 200 was 1:47.90.
Just a couple of weeks later at the Big Ten Championship, Cabush broke her own record she had just set. The Sussex, Wisconsin native broke this record in the preliminaries and earned a time of 1:47.80, earning her a spot in the 200-yard freestyle final on day three of the Big Ten Championship.
In the finals of the 200 freestyle, Cabush didn’t break another record, but she did display a great deal of honor for representing Illinois in the finals. Overall, she finished 16th with a time of 1:49.14, getting 11 points for the team.
Cabush is one of the leaders for the Illini and has been a consistent contributor in freestyle. At every Big Ten Championship since her freshman year, she has earned personal bests, mainly in the 200 freestyle. With one year remaining as an Illini, Cabush seems to be on track to continue breaking and setting new records.

3) Illini beat Wolverines in Ann Arbor by 23 without Ayo Dosunmu

Freshman Andre Curbelo runs to make a basket against Michigan on March 2. (Photo Courtesy of Illini Athletics)

During the 2020-2021 men’s basketball season, Ayo Dosunmu was vital for Illinois’ game plan, as he was a consensus All-American for a reason. However, after the Chicago native suffered a broken nose against Michigan State, the Illini were without their best player in Ann Arbor.
Michigan was one of the best teams in the Big Ten this season, and without Ayo, experts and fans alike believed Illinois would struggle to compete with a talented Wolverine squad. To the delight of the Illinois faithful, they were quite wrong.
No. 4 Illinois wiped the floor against No. 2 Michigan, winning 76-53 at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor. This win against Michigan was the biggest win against a ranked opponent on the road since 1989.
Senior Trent Frazier (22 points), sophomore Kofi Cockburn (12 points, seven rebounds) and freshman Andre Curbelo (17 points) led the charge for the shorthanded Illini.
Illinois’ defense in the first half held Michigan to 20% shooting from the field, and the offense took over in the second half. A 31-12 run in the first ten minutes of the second half put Illinois up by as many as 28 points.
Though the season ended with a disappointing loss to Loyola Chicago in the second round of the NCAA tournament, this game will live in the memories of Illini fans for a long time.

4) Sydney Sickels tosses a no-hitter against Penn State 

Junior Sydney Sickels pitches the softball to a batter from Purdue on April 16. (Eliana Chandra)

On March 13, Illinois matched up against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Sleepy Hollow Sports Complex in Leesburg, Florida. Sydney Sickels was on the mound for the Illini and put together an absolute gem of a performance.
Sickels threw the 14th no-hitter in Illinois softball history, as she allowed no earned runs and struck out ten batters. In game two of this doubleheader, Illinois won 2-1 to pick up a victory in Sickels’ stunning performance.
Illinois opened up the scoring as Jaelyn Vickery and Avrey Steiner started off the third inning with back-to-back bunt singles. Bella Loya then doubled to right center field to give Illinois a 1-0 lead.
Penn State got its one run of the afternoon after a sacrifice fly scored a runner from third, who reached base via an error. Illinois then broke the 1-1 scoreline with a Delaney Rummell two-out single. Sickels struck out two out of the last three Penn State batters to secure her no-hitter and the ninth win of the season for the Illini.

5) Women’s gymnastics team breaks all-around, beam school records on Senior Day

The women’s gymnastics team poses around the school’s new record after their match against Minnesota. (Photo Courtesy of Illini Athletics)

Every year, all Illinois teams honor their seniors on Senior Day with a ceremony before the last home event of the season. This year was no different, as the Illini women’s gymnastics team honored six seniors: Nicole Biondi, Rachel Borden, Kasey Meeks, Kylie Noonan, Tessa Phillips and Jaylen Spence. After four years of hard work, one last meet at Huff Hall became more than just memorable for the seniors; it was historic.
The Illini finished with a team score of 197.575, the best all-around score in program history, surpassing the previous mark by nearly three-tenths of a point. Illinois also broke the school record on beam, recording an all-time high of 49.525.
While the Illini set program records in these two areas, they also recorded the joint-seventh-best score on vault, third-best score on bars and the fifth-best score on floor.
The team also notched career-highs, including three from Biondi on her special night, as the Massachusetts native broke personal records on vault, bars and all-around.
Mia Townes also set three new career-best scores on beam, floor and vault, with the score in the last event (9.925) coming in as the joint fifth-best all-time.
Shaylah Scott’s career-high 9.950 on beam put her in a tie for the second-best event score in program history.
Despite the disappointing end to the season three weeks later, the Illini had four members — Biondi, Townes, Scott and Mia Takekawa — earn Second-Team All-Big Ten honors.

6) Big Ten Championship – men’s basketball 

The men’s basketball team celebrates its Big Ten championship win on March 14. (Photo Courtesy of Illini Athletics)

When Ayo Dosunmu announced he would be returning for a third season in Champaign, he made it clear that he wanted to win some silverware. And that’s exactly what happened.
After the team set the program record for most Big Ten regular-season wins in a season with a 16-4 conference record and earned the No. 2 seed, Illinois received a double bye and took on a Rutgers squad it lost to earlier in the season.
The Illini came to play, sailing past the inferior Scarlet Knights by 22 points and setting up a semifinals matchup with the team’s archrivals: the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Illinois dominated the rematch with Iowa, with Cockburn going for 26 points and Dosunmu scoring 18 in an 11-point victory, sealing a trip to the tournament final for the first time since 2008.
The only team standing in the way of a conference title was Ohio State. The teams had split their two regular-season matchups in two back-and-forth games, and the final proved once again to be a similar format.
After 40 minutes of regulation couldn’t separate the two sides, the Illini squeezed by the Buckeyes in overtime, winning by three and bringing the Big Ten tournament trophy back to Champaign for the first time since 2005.
Based on his heroics all season, Dosunmu was named the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year, an unanimous First-Team All-Big Ten and consensus First-Team All-America selection.

7) Aman Thornton named Big Ten indoor track & field male freshman of the year

Aman Thornton runs a race at Demirjian Park on April 23. (Cameron Krasucki)

Every season, the coaches of the Big Ten choose a male and female freshman of the year for indoor track & field, and this time the male honors went to Illinois’ Aman Thornton.
Throughout the year, Thornton excelled in the 600-meter, placing fifth at the Big Ten Championships with a time of 1:18.10. He earned Second-Team All-Big Ten honors as part of a distance medley relay team that placed second in the conference.
Along with Thornton’s great performances in the 600-meter race, he took third place at the Hawkeye Invitational with a 1:54.06 in the 800-meter race.
The last time the Illini had an outdoor Big Ten Freshman of the Year was Andrew Riley in 2009. Jon Davis won outdoor freshman of the year in 2017, and Davis remains a valuable member of the team in his final year at Illinois.

8) Kuper becomes first Illini defensive specialist or libero on All-Big Ten First Team

Junior Taylor Kuper celebrates after scoring a point on March 27. (Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics)

After an incredible breakout year in her first season as libero, junior Taylor Kuper was named to the All-Big Ten First Team, becoming the first defensive specialist or libero in program history to earn the honors.
Kuper played in all 71 sets for the Illini this season, and she finished with the third-most aces (40) and the fourth-best aces per set average (0.56) in the NCAA. The Kansas native also led the Big Ten in both categories.
She also dominated defensively, finishing fourth in the Big Ten in both digs per set (4.41) and total digs (313).
“All I can think about is how I wish we were still playing,” Kuper said when asked about her All-Big Ten selection. “It feels bad because my teammates went through the same things with COVID-19 this year; it sucked. I wish there was a way that everyone got the recognition because they all deserve it. I mean, it’s nice and I appreciate the recognition, but I want them to be recognized as well.”
As a sophomore in 2019, Kuper finished with 249 digs and 37 aces, with significant jumps in both categories coming during her first season at libero.
Kuper also received the American Volleyball Coaches Association Northeast All-Region Honorable Mention for her achievements this season.

9) Men’s gymnast Ian Skirkey wins NCAA pommel horse title

Junior Ian Skirkey performs a pommel horse routine at the NCAA championship on April 17. (Photo Courtesy of Kelly Hagenson/Fighting Illini Athletics)

In the men’s gymnastics NCAA Championship, junior Ian Skirkey posted a score of 14.166 to claim the pommel horse title. Skirkey is the first Illini since Brandon Ngai in 2016 to win the pommel horse championship.
Even before the championship session, Skirkey earned the highest score on the pommel horse in the first qualifying session with a score of 14.066. Though he was ranked No. 22 in the country going into the weekend, he proved rankings don’t matter whatsoever.
Going into the championship round on Saturday with Illinois performing on the pommel horse last, the veteran knew he was going to anchor the lineup. While it might have been a lot of pressure on the junior, he pulled it off. With the help of Michigan gymnasts performing worse than usual, Skirkey gained a huge advantage.
Knowing he had to do a near-perfect routine and stick the landing, he did just that. After landing, his teammates on the sidelines celebrated because they knew it was a solid showing. Skirkey’s performance ended with an NCAA Championship title, and he was named an All-American on pommel horse for the second year in a row.
Skirkey’s championship allowed him to automatically qualify for the USA Gymnastics National Championship in June, joining fellow Illini junior Michael Fletcher.
During the 2021 season, Skirkey earned two pommel horse titles in addition to finishing second at the Big Ten Championships, losing out on first by just five-hundredths of a point.

10) Riley Gowens, Ryan O’Hara and Cole Kirschsieper throw a combined no-hitter 

Sophomore Ryan O’Hara pitches against Maryland on Saturday. (Lanie Hibel)

On April 25, the baseball team made history. Riley Gowens, Ryan O’Hara and Cole Kirschsieper threw a combined no-hitter against Purdue. This no-hitter marks only the 11th in the 142-year history of the baseball team. The last no-hitter happened back on April 24, 1985, against Bradley, while this also was the program’s first no-hitter away from home.
Gowens threw the majority of the no-hitter, going seven innings, while O’Hara and Kirschsieper got one inning apiece. The previous weekend Illinois lost to Purdue twice on their home ground. Losing 6-4 and a whopping 20-6 put quite a dent in the morale of the pitching staff.
The tough loss helped motivate the pitching staff and forced the group to focus on the game and prepare for what now is a record in the Illinois baseball history books.
Something to note about Gowens is that it was his first season making an appearance in an Illini uniform. Going through Tommy John surgery his freshman year and needing 10-14 months of rehabilitation kept Gowens out of the game.
After a tough two losses to the Boilermakers a week earlier, the Illini turned it around the following weekend against Purdue. This time there were no losses, and Illinois ended up winning the three-game series, the team’s first series sweep of the season. With the no-hitter this season, the pitching staff is hoping to keep the momentum going for the remainder of the year.

11) Big Ten Championship – men’s golf

The men’s golf team poses with a banner and trophy after winning the Big Ten golf tournament May 2. (Photo Courtesy of Danny Mattie / Fighting Illini Athletics)

Throughout the 2020-2021 season, Illinois men’s golf dominated its competition, winning four tournaments during the regular season. When it came time for the Big Ten Championship in late April, the end result stayed the same.
The Illini opened up their play April 30 at a windy Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Indiana. Adrien Dumont de Chassart and Tommy Kuhl were the standout performers for Illinois, as they both shot +1.
At the end of the first round, Illinois and Iowa sat atop the standings with 300 strokes each; The closest competitors were Penn State at 305 and Rutgers at 307.
Moving on to the second day, Illinois took a two-stroke lead on Iowa on the back of another solid performance from Dumont de Chassart and fifth-year senior Michael Feagles, who shot a team-best -1.
Head coach Mike Small was proud of the team’s overall performance, and he knew that Illinois needed strong rounds from every member on the roster.
“The best way for anyone on the team to win the tournament individually is to not try to win it,” Small said. “Play solid golf, play what the golf course gives you, be efficient like we talked about and then you add them up at the end”
The final day of the Big Ten Championship saw the Illini struggle early, but the team eventually prevailed for a one-stroke victory over the Hawkeyes.
Feagles and Dumont de Chassart both earned spots on the All-Championship team after their consistent performances which helped Illinois secure its sixth straight Big Ten title.

12) Big Ten Championship – men’s tennis 

The men’s tennis team celebrates on a court with their Big Ten Championship trophy. (Photo Courtesy of IlliniHQ Twitter)

In a gritty finale between Zeke Clark and Ohio State’s Kyle Seelig, Clark came out on top and won his third set tiebreaker to make Illinois the Big Ten tournament champion. The Buckeyes stood in their way of victory like they have for the past five years. After suffering a 4-1 defeat to the Buckeyes during the regular season, they turned things around in the final.
Earning the doubles point secured them an advantage, but by the time it got to singles, the Illini were not doing so hot. In the first set, Aleks Kovacevic was the lone Illini to win, so it created a fight in the second set to get the championship.
Freshman Hunter Heck was a huge contributor to the win, as he came back from his 0-6 first set loss to win 7-5 in the third set against Big Ten Freshman of the Year JJ Tracy, who picked up his first loss of the season. Still behind 3-2, it was up to Clark and Noe Klihf. The fifth-year seniors showed resilience on the courts, and nearly four hours of playing later, they came in clutch to get the win.
With Big Ten West Title and Big Ten Tournament title, the men’s tennis team will look ahead to the NCAA tournament, as it hosted the first two rounds and competed against DePaul and Notre Dame as the No. 16 seed and will play in Orlando in the Sweet 16.

 

Honorable mentions: Olivia Howell wins Big Ten 1-mile indoor title (women’s track & field), women’s tennis upsets No. 7 Northwestern on Senior Day, Demirjian Park opens (soccer and track & field), volleyball upsets No. 8 Purdue in season finale, Michael Fletcher wins Big Ten vault title (men’s gymnastics), four football players sign with NFL teams, Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn receive Big Ten and All-America honors (men’s basketball), head coach Nancy Fahey gets her first Big Ten tournament win against Wisconsin (women’s basketball), soccer has two game-winning goals in last five minutes in final two regular-season game, Evan Manivong goes viral for vaccination card celebration (men’s gymnastics), Illinois hires new head football coach Bret Bielema, Illinois hires new head wrestling coach Mike Poeta

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