Four Illinois athletes to look out for this year

Illinois’ Aleks Vukic celebrates after winning against Jathan Malik during the meet against No. 21 Michigan at the Atkins Tennis Center on April 17, 2016. The Illini won 4-1.

By Kevin McCarthy, Assistant sports on-air sports

Illini athletics has had — hmm, how do I say this? — an “interesting” last 12 months. I won’t reiterate the narrative, you’ve heard it a million times — things got ugly.

But amidst all the distractions, many Illini athletes were achieving at the highest level. Here are four athletes to watch heading into the 2016-2017 season.

1. Aleks Vukic

A junior on the Illini men’s tennis team, Vukic came alive during his second season at Illinois, earning himself ITA All-American and first-team All-Big Ten honors.

He compiled a 25-5 record in singles play last season, including a 14-4 record against ranked opponents. He’s known for his strong forehand and tremendous accuracy, but he’s also cool under pressure. He clinched a team-high five wins for the Illini last season, including an upset of the back-to-back NCAA champion Virginia Cavaliers. He knocked off third-ranked Thai Kwiatkowski in three sets to earn his team the victory.

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In two seasons at Illinois, he’s only lost one Big Ten singles match.

2. Isaiah Martinez

Martinez is the most dominant athlete on campus, and the two-time national champion may end up being the greatest athlete in Illini history.

Yep, you read that right.

Wrestlers don’t often get the same recognition as a lot of other athletes on campus — and Illinois probably won’t end up building a statue of him — but, if he continues his success, there’s no reason he can’t be in the conversation for “greatest Illini ever.”

My favorite Isaiah story comes from my freshman year. I was covering the team, and he was gearing up for his redshirt-freshman season. In an interview with the unranked 157-pounder, I asked him if he had any goals for his freshman season.

“To go undefeated and win a national title,” he said.

I almost laughed when I heard it — but then he did it. Since then, he’s told me he’s going to win four-straight national titles.

Now that he’s half-way there, I believe him. You should too.

3. Ke’Shawn Vaughn

You’re going to start hearing the name Ke’Shawn Vaughn more and more. Couple Josh Ferguson’s departure with Dre Brown’s season-ending ACL injury, and you’re left with a heck of a lot of carries for the sophomore tailback. Lovie Smith likes to play an old-school brand of football. While he’s far from an offensive genius, his philosophy is to pound the ball on the ground to open up the passing game.

After Ferguson hobbled through last season with a number of injuries, Vaughn was able to get his feet wet as a freshman. But, this year he’ll be relied on far more. The Illini ran the ball on just 43 percent of snaps last season. Expect that number to increase.

Vaughn likes to get between the tackles which will be made easier with Smith deciding to employ a fullback in the offense. He’s not just a between-the-tackles carrier though, he has the potential to get into the secondary with explosive speed as well. He can do it all.

4. Jordyn Poulter

Poulter impressed during her freshman season. The sophomore setter earned herself Big Ten All-Freshman team honors while helping the Illini win 21 games and make it to the Sweet 16.

Unfortunately for the Illini, they’ve been bounced the last three seasons in the sweet 16. With the loss of all-time kills and attacks leader Jocelyn Birks, younger hitters will have to step up if the Illini want to finally get past the Sweet 16.

Poulter will be the table-setter all season long. At this point, it’s her team.

Closing thoughts

There are plenty of other athletes on campus who could have been mentioned in this conversation, which goes to show that Illini athletics are in a much better spot than many realize.

This year will be full of story lines and many questions will soon be answered. How will the Illini fare under Lovie Smith’s leadership? Can Martinez make it three straight? Can John Groce turn the Illini basketball team around after last year’s circus?

And there are many more.

The last year in Illini athletics was one for the books. Hopefully this year can be too, but for much different reasons. Maybe this will be the year Josh Whitman turns it all around — we’ll let the story play out, but that would be quite the tale.

We’ll see.

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