By Steve Robinson | October 17, 2019 - 10:45 pm
Posted in Category: ISU Redbirds, The Normalite

NORMAL – Going into his eighth year as head coach of his alma mater’s men’s basketball team, Illinois State’s Dan Muller told reporters at the team’s media day event on Oct. 16 he can start to assign an identity to his team as their season approaches. “We have a lot of defensive identity this year,” Muller declared.

“We share the ball better than we ever have,” Muller said, giving credit to associate head coach Brian Jones for making players see the advantages in that. “I really like how the ball’s moved. “We’ve been an isolation team in the last few years with our personnel, but I do think this team will share the ball better and more.”

Muller wants his Redbirds to continue to try to “establish an identity as a defensive team.” That means letting each player know the role Muller wants them to play. He said the players find that out about each of their roles in a 10-minute meeting with him.

Finding that defensive identity early on in the season is the priority for the Redbirds if they hope to avoid repeating the .500 season they had last year, finishing one game above an even overall, at 17-16, including dead even in play against Missouri Valley Conference opponents at 9-9.

But although it’s early in the practice stage, ISU has a lot to try to prove as the 2019-20 season dawns. The Redbirds are predicted by Missouri Valley Conference to finish seventh in the league’s pre-season poll, with Missouri State getting the most media votes and anticipated to finish first. ISU’s nemesis residing up Interstate 74, Peoria’s Bradley University received enough votes in the preseason poll to be predicted to finish second.

An early injury to senior guard Ricky Torres has meant freshman D. J. Horne would be stepping into the position until Torres heals, Muller said. Also injured and waiting to heal are sophomore Taylor Bruninga. Muller said Bruninga is “shooting and moving around.” While that sounds positive, Muller said he doesn’t know how long it will be before the 6 foot-8, 220 pound forward and Illini Bluffs High alum will see any court time.

Wichita State transfer Ricky Torres has a sprained ankle, the coach reported and could be ready for the start of the season after potentially having missed the team’s exhibition game against Truman State. LeRoy High alum and Loyola Chicago transfer Matt Chastain is sporting a large cast to protect an injured right thumb sustained in practice.

Matt Chastain Learning While Sidelined: Because of his size, one would think 6 foot-6, 190 pound guard Chastain would ably defend a charge and not do any damage to himself. But during a recent practice three weeks ago, he was the recipient of a charge which resulted in a fall which ended in him landing on it wrong. Doctors have his arm emerging from the cast in another three weeks.

“We’re just trying to show up for practice and get better and work on our game to try to put us in the best position to win games this season,” The redshirt junior said. “Whatever coach needs me to do, I’m going to try to do to the best of my ability.” He is looking at things from a positive point of view, explaining watching from the sidelines will “help me to learn more about the game from the coaches’ point of view.”

This isn’t Chastain’s first injury wearing Red and White. He was sidelined for a majority of his freshman year due to an injured left knee.

Lijah Donnelly Focusing On Team Needs: As redshirt junior Lijah Donnelly sees his role in a Redbirds jersey, he is needed “to bring energy to the team and make sure everybody is playing in the slots they’re supposed to be in.” He said, as a team, the Redbirds are looking to win the Missouri Valley Tournament and advance to receiving an invitation to the NCAA tournament. While he might have personal goals for himself, the 6 foot-2, 170 pound guard is putting any of those aside to do whatever he can for the team, he said.

“If anything happens for myself from that, I’ll be proud,” Donnelly said. “But other than that, I’ll just focus on what’s important for the team.”

Eleven Day Trip To Italy, 3 Wins: The Redbirds got in a little bonding, a little game time and plenty of sightseeing during an 11-day trip to Italy in August, journeying to Rome, Florence, and Venice. In addition to seeing the sights, they showed off their skills going 3-0 by defeating Stella Azzurra Basketball Academy, in Rome, 65-58; A Lithuanian team called BC Silute, in Florence, 73-64; and LCC International in Treviso, 86-61.

Circle Your Calendars: Having played an exhibition against Truman State Oct. 23, ISU will begin the season against Belmont University in a non-conference tilt on Wednesday, Nov. 6 at 7p.m. More travel is ahead of the Redbirds starting Nov. 25 heading to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands for the Paradise Jam tournament where they will meet up against Fordham and Grand Canyon University. Also taking part in that tourney are Nevada, who beat ISU last year, and an early tilt with MVC member Valparaiso. Northern Iowa will be the first MVC opponents to visit Redbird Arena, on Dec. 31 for a 2p.m. game. Interstate 74 nemesis Bradley will visit here Wednesday, Jan. 22 for a 7p.m. game and the Redbirds will visit Peoria in return to take on the Braves on Wednesday, Feb. 26 for a 6p.m. tipoff.

By Steve Robinson | August 6, 2019 - 10:41 pm
Posted in Category: ISU Redbirds, The Normalite

NORMAL – Considering how training camp has gotten off to a positive start for the Redbirds of Illinois State University, ISU head coach told reporters he believes opponents will see how his team plays and make note of how improved they are in 2019.

The Redbirds’ last three seasons have seen a team slide downhill: Tying for 4th with a 6-6 overall and 4-4 Missouri Valley Football Conference record and losing a first round FCS contest in 2016, followed by repeating 4-4 in 2017 in Conference and going 6-5 overall but not qualifying for playoffs, tying for 6th. Last season ended with ISU finishing with the worst Conference record a Spack Redbird-coached team had experienced to that point – 3-5. Understandably, Spack said he wants to reverse course.

“You always hope you are further off in the game than you were last year,” head coach Brock Spack told reporters on Media Day at Hancock Stadium on Aug. 6. “The team has prepared and they are farther ahead of where they were this time last year, which is good.”

But that being said, Spack added, “There are still some questions and those won’t be answered until we play an opponent.” He said it appeared his players had worked a little more on conditioning during the off-season than, perhaps in past years. “This team seems to hold itself accountable, which is very nice,” explained Spack, who is entering his 11th year at the Redbirds’ helm having tallied an overall record of 74-45. That includes a MVFC record of 48-32 which counts among the games played one FCS Championship Game loss in 2014 and three other playoff appearances – quarterfinal appearances in 2012 and 2015, and a loss in the first round in 2016.

This past off-season, Spack issued a challenge to his players to pay attention to their weight and workout habits. He divided his players into eight squads, the winners getting dinner at the coach’s house. “It made it kind of pleasurable because the guys were kind of governing themselves, which is what you want,” Spack said.

In terms of academics, the team has achieved a combined grade point average of 3.0, Spack added. “That’s a huge, huge indicator for where our team is at from an attitude standpoint. They are taking pride in everything they do and in what they have to do to be a champion.”

Seven Local Players Look To Contribute: A total of seven Redbirds players are local guys – three each from Normal and Bloomington, and one who calls Towanda home. Of this group, all three who hail from Normal are Redshirt freshmen. That includes wide receiver Nick Hesse, a Normal Community High School alum. His turn on the field is on hold for the time being as he is recovering from a sprained ankle. “We’ll see what happens after I talk to the doctor,” he said. He optimistically said he would like to be out battling with his teammates by week two of the season – the home opener against non-conference foe Morehead State. Once the ankle is totally healed, “I definitely want to see some action this year,” he said.

Junior offensive lineman Garrett Hirsch attributed the team’s poor finish last year to what he saw was “a lot of negativity” he thought was present last year, especially when, he added, “we thought we were better than we were. So this year, we’re trying to keep that negativity out of here. As a group, that is what we decided we were going to do this season. That’s why I think we’re going to much more successful than we have been in the past.”

Having sat out as required last year, Peter Bussone will be a redshirt freshman this year ready to keep opposing defenders at bay as an offensive lineman. The 6 foot-2, 305 pound Bussone said he has learned plenty about the mental toughness needed to go from the high school game where he played at Normal Community High School to the college game. A former nose guard, he said he realizes the game from that position switch is different than he had experienced previously. “I’m just ready, for when an opportunity strikes, to get onto the field this year,” he said.

Like Bussone, redshirt freshman Dalton Tevis sat out last year but is looking forward to seeing action this season playing outside linebacker trying to open holes to get through to quarterbacks and running backs. A Normal Community High School grad, Tevis said he wants to have a depth of knowledge of the playbook, “so that I don’t make any mistakes mentally.” He adds though that, “We practice so much that I know I will be in the right spot at the right time.” For Tevis, being on the team is a dream come true, having gone to football youth camps set up by ISU since he was in grade school. Being a player now on the team “is a dream come true,” he said.

Having transferred from Division II South Dakota-based Augustana University to ISU, freshman defensive back Franky West, a Normal Community West High School alum, said he is looking forward to playing, once again, for the home crowd. To comply with NCAA rules, the 5 foot-10, 170 pound defensive back will sit out this season and be ready to play for the Redbirds next season. His father, Frank Sr., played for ISU in the 1980s and played in two and won one Canadian Football League Grey Cup Championship game with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Until he gets to play next season, the younger West is on the Redbirds’ scout team helping play the role of the upcoming Redbirds opponent, and said he is looking forward to competing on behalf of ISU.

Sophomore defensive lineman and Bloomington High alum John Ridgeway saw action last season – “about 50 snaps a game” by his count – and the experience last season “gave me a chance to show my talents.” He said the biggest change playing at this level versus in high school is “I’m usually surrounded by dudes who are my size if not bigger.” But since Ridgeway is listed at 6 foot-6 and 325 pounds, being around opponents of similar strength wasn’t intimidating, he said.

A redshirt freshman last year, long snapper Joey Malinowski said he is looking forward to getting in some action on the turf this season. The 6 foot-1, 250 pound Central Catholic product is spending training camp trying “to work myself into the standard rotation for points after touchdown and punting situations. Right now, in training camp, I’m just trying to perfect the craft I’m working on and be as prepared when that time comes.”

Circle Your Calendars: ISU opens the season on the road at Northern Illinois Saturday, Aug. 31. Spack’s Redbirds play before a home crowd at Hancock Stadium Sept. 7 in a non-conference contest against Morehead State, starting with a 6:30p.m. kickoff. The Redbirds’ first Missouri Valley Football Conference opponent will be Saturday, Oct. 5 when North Dakota State visits Hancock Stadium for a 12 Noon game. Indiana State visits for Homecoming 2p.m. game on Oct. 26, and Missouri State closes out the home schedule for the Redbirds on Senior Day for a 12 Noon kickoff.

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.