39 teams from throughout the Great Lakes Region converged in Rockford, Illinois for this year’s Regionals. From the moment you stepped out of your car, it was obvious that the tournament would be a windy one. The field site brought an interesting dynamic to the tournament as well. It was set up in a way so that 5 groups of fields were scattered throughout the enormous sports complex. The wind seemed to affect the fields differently, depending on their location. So while some games were played in extremely difficult wind, others were played with only a slight breeze. The field conditions themselves varied in a similar manner, with some being pristine, flat and well kept, and others being slanted, wet and plagued by pot holes.
It was business-as-usual for the top seeded teams, Michigan State, Michigan, Illinois and Ball State, as all of these teams managed to hold onto their number one seeds in their respective pools. In fact, pool play saw no upsets on any level except in Pool B, where 4th seeded Southern Illinois beat out the Illinois DIII Conference Champions, Wheaton.
The most interesting game of pool play was definitely 4th seed overall Ball State’s game against conference rival and 5th seed overall Indiana. There were big plays on both sides, with Indiana’s Ed Wu’s big throws standing out. Ball State had the lead in the second half, and it seemed like most points were going to the downwind team. This was the story for a few points until Indiana broke upwind and then again downwind to bring the game to Universe Point. Ball State ultimately won the game with a toe-the-line catch by Joe Kalule.
In other pools, the one seeds seemed to have taken care of business, for the most part, without any hiccups. I did hear about a Loyola v. Illinois game that went to Universe, but Illinois took the game in the end. Michigan too, seemed to be off to a slow start in their game against Wheaton; allowing the game to go to cap and only winning 12-10 in the end.
Immediately after the pool games, the 2 and 3 teams from each pool played cross over games to qualify for quarters on Sunday. Here Northwestern (in an upset over Eastern Illinois), as well as Indiana, Chicago and Notre Dame Would go on to face the 1 seeds on Sunday.
Sunday at the Great Lakes proved to be an exciting one. Michigan State sat on top of the bracket looking like they had another shot at Nationals. Last year they had lost in the finals, and then again in the 2nd place game, missing out on both bids to Nationals. This year there is only 1 bid, so it was sudden death for everyone. Michigan has proven to be a powerhouse in this region. While losing to Michigan State last year in the Conference finals, they were able to beat them for the second bid to Nationals. They then went on to finish tied for 5th in Madison. With their opening game against Indiana, Illinois probably had the toughest road ahead of them on Sunday, but they had history behind them as the Illini have won Regionals the past two years.
Once again, Indiana put up a big fight to try and upset, but Illinois kept them down. Indiana managed to tie the score late in the game, but cool-headed play and tough defense allowed Illinois to walk away with the W. The other top seeds took care of business and moved on to face each other in the semis.
The match ups were Michigan State vs. Ball State, and Illinois vs. Michigan. Both Ball State and Michigan State are teams that have been on the rise in the past few years. Michigan State making the jump from an 11th place tie in 2009 to the Regional finals in 2010. Ball State has been building chemistry and moving up the regional ladder the past few years. This year they will be graduating 9 players, so it seemed that it was now or never for them. Michigan and Illinois have a decent rivalry going the past few years; Illinois seems to always have Michigan’s number at Regionals, but Michigan has been placing better at Nationals. In the end, both Michigan State and Illinois handled their semi final opponents well, both winning their games by a margin of 5 or more.
2011’s Great Lakes Regional final proved to be a rematch of 2010’s in Michigan State and Illinois. The game started off more or less evenly, but Illinois soon pulled away and never looked back. Illinois became the Great Lakes Open Regional Champions for the 3rd time in a row.
Photo by Adam Davis