Despite a new emphasis on regular season results, Illinois is one of the few teams attending nationals that got there without a safety net. Win your region, and things take care of themselves. With Michigan and Michigan State grabbing all of the attention, Illinois quietly went through the regular season gaining experience and prepping themselves for the series. Captain Austin Lien, “The Illinois road to Nationals is pretty consistently bumpy. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but we’re definitely an underachieving team up until the series.”
The top teams were playing Easterns, Warm Up, Stanford Invite, beefing up their ranking and acquiring bids for their respective regions. Michigan seemed to be the front runner of the Great Lakes after a fantastic regular season that featured wins over Colorado and Oregon, and a tournament win at Queen City Tune Up. Illinois was attending the Free State Classic, losing to teams like Iowa, who were finishing well below Michigan at Easterns. Lien, “Typically we attend tournaments with stronger competition with fair results. This year, we ended up attending slightly less competitive tournaments. We still did not achieve the type of wins we wanted.”
The last weekend of the regular season seemed to suggest, in hindsight, that they were starting to peak. Wins over teams at Huck Finn with outside shots to Nationals, Ball State, Washington University, and Ohio State started to show that this squad was separating themselves from the lower tiered teams. A close game with Wisconsin would have furthered that notion, but a spanking from Minnesota quickly dissolved any thought of Illinois being an actual contender. Michigan and Michigan State seemed to be destined to battle it out in the title game of the Great Lakes region.
The warning signs started the first weekend of the series, where Michigan would lose to Michigan State in conference play. Illinois had cruised through their conference, and competition looked like it would be much tighter at Regionals. Michigan hadn’t won the region recently, but had often finished high at Nationals after getting a backdoor bid. All too often, history repeats itself, but there was no backdoor bid this time. “Maybe we just play well when our season is on the line” Lien said, “We’ve been the underdog who wins it all at Regionals the last three years. I would argue that we’ve never really felt like we’re at the top of our region.” Perhaps it’s that confidence that they’ve done it before as the underdog, or that they play better with pressure, but whatever the reason it’s worked for Illinois. What was most surprising was the 15-9 trouncing of Michigan, who most still assumed to be the favorite, in the semi finals. While they still had to take down Michigan State in the finals, Illinois had gone from underdog to favorite with one win. They would grab the lone bid by the count of 15-11.
Despite their ability to grow over the season, this Illinois team isn’t inexperienced. Lien, “While it’s definitely true thatwe built up a good amount of experience building up to regionals, I wouldn’t consider us a young team anymore. The strength of the program is in the current Junior class.” Zach Frantz was able to come back for Regionals after an injury plagued regular season. Standing 6’2”, Frantz uses his length to release hucks around marks to make deep cuts viable from anywhere on the field. The player to watch on Illinois is Ryan “Kennedy” Smith, as he accounts for the majority of assists on the D line, often after generating the D. Combined with an experience cutting crew in Brian Pierce, Chris Hidaka, Neal Phelps, and Dane Jorgensen, they have the experience to do damage against good teams.
Illinois showing at Nationals has left much to be desired for the last two years after not being able to hold seed. Coming in 2009 as an 8th seed, and in 2010 as 14th, eventually losing out in pool play and a 17th place finish. However, not too long ago Illinois lost in the quarterfinals to Colorado 15-13 , Lien’s first year. “Illinois has not matched the strength of the 08′ team’s regular season since” Lein said, “We’ve only been able to squeeze two wins total out of our last two appearances.” Illinois will no doubt be one of the lowered seeded team in this tournament.
This year could be different, as there are very little expectations from the outside on Illinois. People still will not talk about them as being a top team in the college landscape, despite beating a team like Michigan. “Without Michigan… it falls on us to represent the Great Lakes Region”, Lien said. It does fall on their shoulders now, and all they had to do was win the Region.
Photos courtesy of Kyle McKinley