By Steve Robinson | October 4, 2018 - 10:52 pm
Posted in Category: ISU Redbirds, The Normalite

NORMAL – When Illinois State University ’s men’s basketball team began their season last year, they had no seniors and a lot of hope for a successful season. With no seniors, there were some who questioned just how far such a team could go as the season progressed.

As it turned out, the answer as to how far they got answered in St. Louis , when head coach Dan Muller’s troops finished, was second losing to league tournament champ Loyola-Chicago. But this year, with four seniors, the Redbirds’ hopes to go further are clearly evident.

With guards Keyshawn Evans and Ridgeview alum William Tinsley, and forward Phil Fayne as the seniors leading the charge, and two juniors – Josh Jefferson, Zach Copeland – following, waiting for their moment to step up, Muller knows he has players who can step up right now from the opening tip.

He also knows LeRoy High alum Matt Chastain, who has battled injuries over the last couple of years, is of a mind to contribute this season, as well, and hopes to stay healthy.

As for the group as a whole, Muller said, “We have high expectations. We have a really good group and the leadership’s there. It’s a fun team to coach.”

Muller said this team “reminds me of the team we had a couple years ago.” That would be the 2015-16 season team that made it to the quarterfinals at the MVC Tournament before losing to Indiana State , finishing the season with an 18-14 mark, including a 12-6 conference record.

He said that’s because sophomore forward Keith Fisher III, senior guard Jaycee Hillsman, and sophomore guard Dedric Boyd all came to ISU with playing experience in NCAA Division I. Fisher and Hillsman both came from San Jose State , and Boyd came from Eastern Kentucky . But while Muller is happy to have that trio on his roster, those three will be watching this season, unable to play at ISU now to fulfill NCAA’s transfer residence requirement for players.

That means this season “will come down to returning players,” 42-year-old Muller admitted. “We have guys in the program for 2, 3, 4 years who know what to expect.”

“We’re more balanced on both ends of the court,” Muller said, adding the team has worked more on its offensive scheme “than we ever have before.” That’s because ISU, which finished 18-15, which included a 10-8 conference mark last season, is working on a new offense. At that point, Muller refused to say much more about it, except to admit he thought he now had “the most talented offensive team since I’ve been here.”

“We’re more balanced on both ends of the court,” he added. “We have more shooters and more guys who can make plays.”

UIS Transfer Donnelly Not Bothered By Sitting Out A Year: ISU fans won’t see junior guard Lijah Donnelly on the court for another year because of NCAA’s rule about transfers needing to sit out one year after moving from one school to another, but that doesn’t seem to dampen his enthusiasm for being at ISU.

The Bloomington High product played at Division II University of Illinois Springfield before coming to ISU, and although he can’t play this season, he shows signs of being glad of his decision to come here. He said Muller reached out to him, stating he wanted Donnelly to come “help the team as much as I could.”

He said he is a player whose philosophy toward the game is “play hard every day, go hard every day.” What he was told by teammates was that being in Missouri Valley was that “it’s a battle every night and to come prepared for that.”

Chastain Learned To Get Through Adverse Times: Redshirt sophomore guard Matt Chastain said he learned a lot from his first year at ISU, including some new offensive and defensive techniques. After playing in big games at LeRoy High School and Loyola-Chicago, being part of a team that made it to MVC’s championship – against the school he first went to out of high school — didn’t rattle him, he said.

Chastain said he learned plenty about himself in his first year while at ISU, including “how to get through adversity, and learning not to be scared about taking the right shots.” He remained injury-free last year, playing in all 33 games for the Redbirds, but has recovered from a minor meniscus surgery in his left knee he needed after the season.

Internally, Chastain said, he and his teammates are talking about, once the regular season is completed, winning the MVC Championship, having come as close as they did last year.

Tinsley Ready To Continue Contributing: While Chastain’s redshirt period has ended and he is ready to make contributions this year, Ridgeview High alum William Tinsley appears anxious for the season to get started having experienced ISU’s run last year and the team having gotten to the MVC championship with hopes for a return. Last season, in his first season on the court after transferring to ISU from Lake Land College and sitting out per NCAA rules at that time, Tinsley scored 120 points, averaging almost 7 points per contest. He also had 8 steals, 18 blocks, and 14 assists. He was 2-for-7 from the free throw line and had 45 percent shooting from the floor. He also make 28-of-73 treys.

Among the lessons he said he latched on to last season: ”When to shoot the three and when not to shoot the three, and when to drive to the basket and when not to drive, defensively, especially. I learned a lot about defense because without defense, you’re not going to win a lot of games.”

Tinsley called last season with the Redbirds “a growing year for me, but I think it’s going to help me learn from mistakes and hopefully, be the best player I can be this year.”

There were other lessons he picked up, Tinsley said, including “how to get through adversity, and not be afraid about the shots you take.” Among his goals for the coming season are to be “a relentless defender.”

Tinsley had surgery to repair a meniscus tear after the season which laid him up for three weeks.

Circle Your Calendars: ISU begins Muller’s seventh season with an exhibition game against Lewis University on Tuesday, Oct. 30 starting with the 7p.m. tipoff. Their first game of the season is Tuesday, Nov. 6 against Florida Gulf Coast University . ISU will play in the Cayman Islands Classic Nov. 13-Nov. 21. ISU’s first MVC game will be Wednesday, Jan. 2 at Valparaiso . Their games against Bradley will be on Wednesday, Jan. 23 in Peoria and on Saturday, Feb. 16 at Redbird Arena.

By Steve Robinson | December 20, 2017 - 10:53 pm
Posted in Category: ISU Redbirds, The Normalite

ISU Redbird HelmetNORMAL – Two local recruits are among the 18 players Illinois State University head football coach Brock Spack has signed 20 players in the early recruiting period, two of them local – one from Normal Community High School and one from Central Catholic High School. Among the National Letter of Intent signees are NCHS’ Peter Bussone and BCC’s Joey Malinowski.

Peter Bussone: Bussone is a 6 foot-1, 285 pound defensive lineman for the Ironmen who Spack said “is very, very physical and tough. He has the size right now needed to play. He is one of the rare guys that I’ve seen come through who could handle our game as a freshman, physically and mentally.”

“He’s been an offensive lineman but I kind of viewed him as a defensive lineman,” Spack said of Bussone. “I think we’re in need of a young, big-bodied guy who can move inside on defense. We’ll see how he does. I hope he gets an opportunity to play this year.” Spack said there is the potential that Bussone could “fill an immediate need” on the team once he arrives, but the coach added, “We’ll have to see though.”

Joey Malinowski: The 6 foot-1, 250 pound Malinowski is listed as a long snapper on the Redbirds roster and that’s the primary reason and assignment he will fulfill for Spack’s team once he arrives on campus. “We recruited him specifically for the position of long snapper,” Spack noted. “What we like about him is that he was an offensive lineman, used for protection and be able to move and block. So when we do ask him to do those things, his playing on the offensive line will help.” Because of his specialty, Spack said, it’s unlikely Malinowski will be put in any other game situations that don’t involve his position.”

Missouri Valley Football ConferenceJim Malinowski, Joey’s father, is an assistant coach at BCC who played pro playing career in Germany as a long snapper. BCC seems to make producing long snappers a specialty or sorts considering Nick Buchanan, Nathan Rebholz and Chris Highland also suited up for the Redbirds after graduating from BCC.

Spack said he could envision players he signed during this month playing in 2018 as well as the ones the team is looking at signing during the February recruiting period. Spack said it just depends on “how much they can learn” in the short time they are with the team once they join it. He said NCAA rules have changed so that teams can meet with players during the summer which will help with orientating players, Spack said.

“Blueprint Has Been Staying Closer To Home”: On the subject of recruiting, Spack said, “Our blueprint has been staying closer to home and taking care of home first and spreading out from there. The heart and soul of our team will always come from this part of the country…from central Illinois and spread out from there.” From there, Spack said, the hunt for future Redbird players will go up to Chicago , Indianapolis , St. Louis , and points outward.

“I think you need to take care of home first,” said Spack, who will be entering his 10th season as Redbirds head coach next year touting a career record of 68-39 which includes a Missouri Valley Football Conference record of 45-26. That record also includes four appearances in the FCS Playoffs including one trip to the FCS Championship at the end of the 2014 season against MVFC rival and FCS reigning champ North Dakota State .

Of the 20 signees, only two were not from states that bordered Illinois – one from Kansas , the other from Texas .

By Steve Robinson | August 1, 2017 - 10:54 pm
Posted in Category: ISU Redbirds, The Normalite

FootballNORMAL – Illinois State University head football coach Brock Spack told reporters at the team’s annual Media Day on Aug. 1 his team had “a very good off-season, and that the first practice the team had was typical of a first day back when even the veterans tried to get back in the routine again.”

The Redbirds, who finished 2016 below .500 for only the second season in Spack’s tenure up to that year, begin Spack’s ninth season when Butler visits Hancock Stadium for a non-conference contest on Saturday, Sept. 2 for a 6:30p.m. kickoff.

“We’re a long team and athletic,” Spack said. “But we’re inexperienced in certain spots.” That means as of yet untested talent the Redbirds will get five weeks between Media Day and their first game to put players into position in time to start the season.

Spack said his troops will have their hands full against Butler, and then again at their first away game at Eastern Illinois on Sept. 9.

While 6 foot-3 Jake Kolbe is set to start at quarterback for the Redbirds, a competition in training camp will determine from whom he will receive snaps, Spack said. Peoria Richwoods High alum Tyler Brown and Dan Helt, a 6 foot-5 senior were rotated through on the position of center during camp’s first few days.

Spack said junior quarterback Kolbe has recovered from an injury he sustained last season and has spent time in the weight room this summer which has made him “a bigger guy structurally” according to his coach. The Redbirds “are Jake’s team now,” the coach added, the result of Kolbe stepping away from the shadow of graduate Tré Roberson. Roberson is now playing defensive back for NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.

Redshirt Players Will Study: Being a redshirt freshman player has advantages and disadvantages. It gives you a year to the team’s playing system and study the team playbook at length for one season before stepping up to be on the field. But that means you sit out a whole season when a player would rather be trying to contribute. Ryan Zitkus, a redshirt freshman from Bloomington Central Catholic would like to find himself playing center in the future for the Redbirds but said he knows the wait to take to the gridiron will be worth it. “If I become a starter…great,” Zitkus said. “If not, I’m going to support the guys in front of me.” Right now though, Zitkus said he’s “just trying to learn the game.”

Zitkus will have some company familiar to him while he waits to hit the gridiron. His BCC teammate, John Hayes, is also redshirting this season, looking to start making plays for ISU next season. During his senior season last year at BCC, Hayes caught 12 passes covering 223 yards, and scored three touchdowns. His longest catch was from 40 yards and he averaged almost 19 yards per game. He could come in handy on defense, too, if Spack and the Redbirds have a need. In his senior year at BCC, he made 25 solo tackles and shared in making 26 tackles on the season. He is credited with 12 sacks and forcing quarterbacks to hurry their throws nine times.

“Being a redshirt didn’t seem like a bad idea,” reasoned John Ridgeway, a Bloomington High grad who looks to be part of the Redbirds’ offensive line in 2018. “Doing this gives me a chance to know the plays better and to come back stronger next year.”

ISU Redbird HelmetUniversity High alum Austin Galindo is redshirting this year, as well. On the ISU roster, he’s a defensive lineman. He said he has been studying the playbook with guidance from his older teammates. He said he also realizes he will need to make on-field adjustments from what he was used to in high school once he hits the turf for the Redbirds.

Normal Community High School alum Garrett Hirsch is also redshirting, in the wings studying the role of offensive lineman, as it were. “Obviously, everybody strives to be a starter and be ‘the guy,’” he said of those wanting the nod from the coaching staff to take the field in a key situation. “But it’s a process and there’s a position battle going on” even as early as day two of training camp.

Hirsch said he’d like to try out for center and that after his redshirt period ends, he’d be studying the Redbirds’ playbook for the next four years. “It would be like a test that never ends,” he joked.

Normal West Alums Breen, Bumpus Prepare For Their Junior Year: Two Normal Community West High School products, Zach Breen and Cole Bumpus return for their junior seasons with the Redbirds. The 5 foot-10 Breen was a backup kicker/punter for Sean Slattery last season. In that role, “I got to learn a lot, and hopefully, can take what I’ve learned into this year.

Breen said punter Reese Attard, a native Australian who graduated in the spring, did teach him Rugby punts. Those include starting out by running as though you are rolling out to throw a pass. Kicking in that manner, Breen said, keeps defenders from getting to close to kickers compared to how close they might get to one who kicks in the traditional manner. “Rugby punts don’t involve as many steps,” Breen explained.

Younger guys are getting up to speed as camp opened, Breen added.

Bumpus, a defensive back, said one of his goals this season, is to “be a leader on special teams. Ultimately, as a team, our goal is to win the Missouri Valley Football Conference championship.”

Missouri Valley Football ConferenceBumpus said ISU having been the last team selected to get into the FCS Championship playoffs last season didn’t bother him. “Our being selected that far down only showed me the selection committee respected us because we were the only 6-5 team to get in. But it also showed me how strong the Valley is in terms of competition.”

As far as personal goals this season, Bumpus said, “I’m just going to put as much hard wo9rk in as I can and see where it takes me.”

This Is Lexington Native Hoselton’s Senior Year: ISU’s 2017 campaign is Lexington native and BCC product George Hoselton’s final season as a Redbird. “It’s crazy I’ve already been here 4 ½ years,” he said. He said his goals this final season are “more for the team than for myself.” He did say winning MVFC Championship was a top goal. That was followed by “taking care of the football more.”

Spack’s Record: As Spack begins his ninth season patrolling the sidelines in 2017, he carries into it a 62-35 record which includes four appearances in the FCS playoffs, with the farthest the Redbirds have soared in them is to lose in the championship game to North Dakota State in January 2015 to complete their 2014 season. ISU’s regular season conference record under Spack is 41-23.

Circle Your Calendars: ISU opens the season at home against non-conference visitor Butler on Saturday, Sept. 2, starting with a 6:30p.m. kickoff. MVFC season for ISU starts on the road at Missouri State on Sept. 23 with a 2p.m. contest. MVFC foe South Dakota State will be the opponent for the Redbirds’ Homecoming game on Oct. 21 at 2p.m.

By Steve Robinson | October 24, 2016 - 11:30 am
Posted in Category: ISU Redbirds, The Normalite

BasketballNORMAL – As Illinois State University’s men’s basketball team prepares for their 2016-17 season, the key word used is potential. Potential in hopes for a great season. Potential for more victories versus Missouri Valley Conference opponents. The potential to get to NCAA Tournament for the first time since Redbirds head coach Dan Muller led the team’s charge 18 years ago against Arizona.

Muller began his fifth season telling reporters his squad’s four seniors – guards Paris Lee and Tony Wills, and forwards Deontae Hawkins and MiKyle McIntosh – will be the ones leading the charge and showing their younger teammates the way throughout the season.

“I really like this group a lot,” Muller told reporters on Media Day on Oct. 19 in the interview room at Redbird Arena. “We’ll see where that takes us, but so far in practice, they’ve been really fun to coach.”

Muller said he thought it was a fair assessment that the Redbirds, who finished last season in third place in MVC with an 18-14 overall record which included a conference finishing mark of 12-6, “will go as far as our seniors will take us.”

“Obviously, it will take more than just those four for us to attain the goals we have for our team,” Muller said. “But with their experience and their talent level, a lot of that will fall on them.”

“The good thing about those four is that they can handle it,” Muller said. He added the younger players on the squad will follow the lead of the veteran players.

ISU RedbirdThe Redbirds had been working on Doug Collins Court for two weeks already when Media Day came, and as you read this, the team is entering into the next phase of their work with practices in the next two weeks which will involve learning some fundamentals followed by inserting specific plays and strategies for game situations. Muller said that last aspect can, sometimes, be tricky for new players.

Muller said his two transfer players – junior Milik Yarborough from St. Louis and sophomore Christian Romine from University of Texas El Paso – won’t find not being in game situations a problem probably until mid-December, January, and February – the time when the Redbirds will face the heart of the conference schedule.

In the meantime, helping those two newcomers “by developing great relationships with them, helping them to understand and trust the coaches, and how hard we’re pushing them and help them understand how they can improve as players” becomes the main focus.

High Energy Wanted: Lee said Muller puts an emphasis on making sure players have high energy when the team practices. “My approach to games this season is to come out and be comfortable,” Lee said. “I’m taking things one game at a time. You don’t want to overlook any opponents.”

“I feel like we’ve got a group of guys who can come out here to compete against anybody in the country,” Lee said.

Circle Your Calendars: ISU opens the season at home on Sunday, Nov. 6 with an exhibition against Quincy with a 3p.m. start time. The Redbirds’ nonconference schedule will start with a road game at Murray State on Friday, Nov. 11, and the Redbirds’ first home game will be on Wednesday, Nov. 16 against Indiana Fort Wayne, starting with a 6p.m. tipoff. The Redbirds will say aloha to three games at the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu where they will face Hawaii in their first game there Friday, Dec. 23. Upon returning home, Evansville will be the first MVC opponent to visit Redbird Arena this season on Thursday, Dec. 29, starting at 7p.m. The two-game rivalry with I-74 nemesis Bradley will play out starting with visiting Peoria’s Carver Arena on Wednesday, Jan. 18, starting at 8p.m. The Braves will visit Redbird Arena on Saturday, Feb. 11 starting at 9p.m.

By Steve Robinson | August 12, 2016 - 10:22 pm
Posted in Category: ISU Redbirds, The Normalite

FootballNORMAL – Illinois State University’s Redbirds football squad was ranked 10th in a top 10 poll conducted for the STATS FCS Preseason Top 25 poll. To anybody who saw their victory march in the middle of the season over higher ranked Missouri Valley Football Conference foes like Youngstown State and Northern Iowa, all part of a 7-game winning streak during the regular season, fans might think that was rather low.

But the power conferences ruled the preseason Top 25 with the Colonial Athletic Association collecting six selections, and the Big Sky Conference and Missouri Valley Football Conference gaining five apiece. Reigning FCS Champion North Dakota State enters the 2016 season as the FCS favorite. Having won an NCAA-record five straight national titles, the Bison earned 152 of the 158 first-place votes from a national panel of sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers.

As one might expect at this point in the year, with the 2016 season about to kick off with the Redbirds’ first home game at Hancock Stadium set for Saturday, Sept. 3 at 6p.m., the fans and the team are more interested in proving the pollsters wrong and moving up in those polls as quickly as possible.

Senior Linebacker Brent Spack Looks To Lead: Heading into his final season, senior linebacker Brent Spack said he is looking to be among those who will lead the younger Redbirds toward their future this season. “We have another good leader and senior, Alejandro Rivera next to me at linebacker, and he and I, we just want to lead our team and show everyone that we can win championships and will win championships.” The younger Spack said he will be stepping into the shoes of linebacker Pat Meehan, who was a senior last year. Meehan was the role model the younger Spack used for prepping for his senior season in terms of assuming leadership.

“In addition to winning the conference, and championship, is to lead the conference in defense, if not the nation,” Spack, a Normal Community High grad, said. “They’re big goals, but being a defensive player, I would really like to see that happen from our guys.” The younger Spack said he is considering graduate school and thinking about getting into coaching.

ISU Redbird HelmetBreen Ready For Sophomore Season: In the classroom, Zach Breen is a junior and ready to continue his studies. On the Hancock Field turf, since he redshirted, he is a sophomore, which means he was getting acclimated to college football life after having been kicker for Normal Community West High School . “I got in a couple games last season, so I got a little experience under my belt,” the 5 foot-10, 175 pounder said. “It’s been a lot of fun learning from the older guys.” He said coaching staff watching him on film and then providing a critique of his efforts has really helped him out since having been in actual game situations. His personal goal for this season includes trying to get on the field more than the two times he was able last year.

Hoselton Gets Sneak Peek At Opponents’ Playbooks: Lexington resident and Bloomington Central Catholic High alum George Hoselton found himself in a unique position on the squad last year. A junior this year, Hoselton found himself third string at his offensive line position, but that presented what some might consider an unusual opportunity. During Redbirds practices, Hoselton and some other third string players found themselves in the role of the opposition during practices, running opponents’ plays.

“Being an offensive lineman, our job is to give our defense a good look each week at the opponent we’re playing every upcoming week,” Hoselton said of the assignment. “It’s nice to know that in this role, I have a part in helping my team get better.” Hoselton has aspirations of advancing from third string, and the only way he can do that he said is continue working on his skills.

“No Issues” For Freshman Hirsch Learning Front Line Assignments: Freshman offensive lineman Garrett Hirsch credits Redbirds Offensive Line Coach Dan Clark with helping him and his new teammates to learn to overcome mental lapses in practice which could be costly during game situations. “The whole playbook is really, so much more advanced than it is in high school,” explained the 6 foot-2, 290 pound center from Towanda. “There are so many mental lapses that can occur because we are still learning plays. But Coach Clark is so good at his job that the others assigned to him and I have no real issues.”

Bumpus Knows Players Need To Show They’re Ready For Action: Cole Bumpus will academically be a junior when the fall term starts and besides his football duties, he is one of the few players who will also be a double major in Finance and Business Administration. A Bloomington resident, he played defensive back for Normal Community West High. The business world may be highly competitive, but that shouldn’t startle Bumpus who said he wants to compete on the field to get a shot at playing safety or cornerback for the Redbirds. Going into training camp, he’s third string at the positions. “You have to show the coaches you’re ready to slip into those positions” when called, Bumpus, now a junior, said.

Missouri Valley ConferenceU-High Alum Galindo Finds “There’s A Lot To Learn”: Freshman defensive end Austin Galindo admits “there is a lot to learn about the system he is about to play in at ISU. In his high school days, he was a defensive end and tight end at U-High. “I’m just going to try to learn from the older guys and try to get better at the position,” he said. “Obviously, there’s a lot to learn as a true freshman.” He said even though there were fans at U-High games all four years he played at Hancock Stadium, he said playing as a Redbird, with the stadium packed will be “even more special” when he gets his chance to play for ISU.

Central Catholic Alum Hayes Waiting His Turn: Normal resident and another BCC alum is of the understanding he won’t go from the sidelines to the turf in what is his freshman year this season. “I understand everyone’s got to wait their turn, and that I’ll be redshirting this year,” the 6 foot-4, 255 pound defensive lineman said. “I expected all of this to be different from what high school was.” Just because he won’t be in games doesn’t mean Hayes isn’t thinking ahead. He said his goals for this season include time in the weight room to help him get stronger and faster.