By Steve Robinson | August 19, 2016 - 10:19 pm
Posted in Category: Illinois Wesleyan, Pekin Daily Times

FootballBLOOMINGTON – When Illinois Wesleyan University’s football team takes the field for the 2016 season, opposing defenses will find a comparatively young offensive line trying to keep them from getting through to their quarterback and running backs. Opponents will also find that IWU’s squad has “Just One Thing” on their collective mind, as well.

Three specific words could be heard from every Titans player on media day Friday at Tucci Stadium: Just one thing. That one thing is to win the Collegiate Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin title.

Last season, IWU looked to be well on their way to doing that with a 7-0 mark until coming up short against their last two foes on the schedule last season, North Central, Wheaton College, and North Park.

But with a leg injury sidelining junior first string quarterback Jack Warner, the season could start with his backup, junior Jack Donegan, to get IWU’s potential positive start underway.

As the season opens up, a preseason poll by D3football.com has Wheaton College and North Central ranked in the Top 25. Wheaton College is ranked 8th in the poll, with North Central sliding into 13th. The CCIW preseason poll has IWU ranked third behind these two foes in that order.

Illinois Wesleyan FootballWashington Alum Herrell Looking To Finish By Fostering Traditions: Washington Community High School product Austin Harrell, now a senior at IWU, “brings some differences to the game,” IWU head coach Norm Eash said, adding, “He’s different because defensive backs don’t know how to take him. He’s big. If you’re thinking of hitting him high, you’d better not think of hitting him high because he’s 6 foot-4 and 214 pounds. He’s got tremendous speed. When he’s running, he takes long strides. Defensive backs don’t know how to take him.”

One of the captains for the team this season, Harrell said he would like to finish his IWU playing career “helping younger guys on the team and to foster traditions for players in future years.”

During the 2015 season, Harrell continued to make his mark at IWU, as he had 49 rushes last season for 341 yards and one touchdown, the longest of which was 60 yards. He also caught nine passes for 128 yards and one score.

Morton Alum Monferdini Moving From Tackle To Guard: Morton High School alum Nicholas Monferdini will be among those on the front line looking to protect IWU’s offense for the Titans’ Sept. 3 in an exhibition game against Mexico’s Monterey University at Tucci Stadium.

CCIW“We started four sophomores last year and he was among them,” Eash said, referring to Monferdini. “That was rough going but we were still at 7-0. Now those kids like Monferdini who were in the thick of it last year will be a year older and I think there’s a big jump in the offensive line from sophomore year to junior year.”

Now that those front line troops are in their junior year, Eash said, “We’ll have a veteran offensive line, and Monferdini will be a big part of it.”

The new season will also mean a position shift for Monferdini, from left tackle to right guard – a move Eash believes the 6 foot-4, 270 pounder is more suited for. “Nick was more of a guard for us,” Eash said about the role he saw for Business major.

“Being on the field was great and it was a great learning experience,” Monferdini said. “Playing at this level, after playing at the high school level, really made me step my game. It made me work a lot harder for this season so I could get better.” For instance, he said, being a Titan has taught him how to adjust his pass blocking style.

Squib Kicks: IWU will have 9 starters on offense and 10 on defense as the season opens…..IWU will open the season at Nebraska Wesleyan on Sept. 10….IWU’s 2016 home part of the schedule begins by hosting North Central Sept. 10 at 6p.m.…. Wheaton College visits for IWU Homecoming Oct. 1 at 1p.m…..Elmhurst College visits on IWU Senior Day Oct. 29 for a 1p.m. game.

FootballNORMAL – When he played football for Washington Community High School, Christian Uphoff proved to be a young man of many skills: He could find himself playing any one of a number of positions and proving he could do them well: Cornerback, Safety, Wide Receiver, and Running Back were the positions his high school coach, Darrell Crouch would insert him in for battle depending upon the situation and opponent.

But now, as a freshman at Illinois State University, Uphoff is keenly aware his playing days will have to wait a little while until he sees action. Until head coach Brock Spack and his assistants find a role for Uphoff, he will continue to play the role of observer and continue doing what he has since coming here earlier this month: “Still getting the hang of things.”

ISU Redbird Helmet“I will continue doing that because, right now, I don’t want to go out onto the field and, you know, and be responsible for an opponent’s touchdown or something. I want to take my time and learn my position.”

His college coach, Illinois State University’s Brock Spack, entering his eighth season in 2016, had high praise for Uphoff at this early stage of his career. “He’s a very, very good athlete. His best football is ahead of him.”

“I like his length,” Spack said of the 190-pounder.”He’s a very, very good athlete. He’s played a lot of skilled positions at Washington. Right now, he’s not a very polished football player, but I think his best football is way ahead of him.”

‘Bird Ranked In Top 10: ISU was ranked in a top 10 poll having found themselves Redbirds were ranked No. 10 in the STATS FCS Preseason Top 25. 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

Missouri Valley ConferenceJake Colby Gets QB Nod: Sophomore Jake Colby gets the nod from Spack as the Redbirds starting quarterback. The Naperville Central grad will find himself being defended by a front line that has youth on its side being around the same age as the quarterback. He will be passing to veteran receivers such as junior tight end Michael Clements and senior wide receiver Anthony Warrum.

Squib Kicks: ISU opens the season at home against non-conference visitor Valparaiso on Saturday, Sept. 3 at 6p.m. …..The Redbirds will take on Northwestern in Evanston in a non-conference contest on Saturday, Sept. 10 at 2:30p.m. ….ISU will visit North Dakota State on Saturday, Oct. 1 for a 2:30p.m. showdown……Youngstown State is the opponent when ISU celebrates Homecoming on Saturday, Oct. 8 with a 2p.m. game.

By Steve Robinson | March 3, 2016 - 10:08 pm
Posted in Category: Pekin Daily Times, Pekin HS

BasketballNORMAL – Sydney Diekhoff’s season ended quickly at Illinois High School Association Class 4A 3-Point Shootout at Redbird Arena Thursday.

Although her fellow Pekin High Dragons closed out their season with a loss against Bradley Bourbonnais in regionals this year, Diekhoff said she was glad to have her season continue by making it this far in this annual competition. She tried to get this far last year, but fell short of the goal at regionals.

This year, she made her way to State, having seen 9-of-15 shots swish through the hoop at regionals and 8 more do the same in sectional competition. But grouped with five other girls from across the state here, Diekhoff sank 3 of five shots from right wing, just 1 of five from the top of the key, and 2 of five fall from left wing for a total score of 6-for-15. She said she was glad it lasted a little longer, but Diekhoff’s season is now at an end.

“(I thought to myself) going into regionals, it would be pretty cool to advance to sectionals,” explained the junior who has hopes of majoring in the Sports Management field. Being a 1,000-point scorer has allowed her to garner attention from Bradley, Southern Illinois University, and Arkansas.

“I thought this would be pretty fun because I’ve never gotten that far before. After our team lost, and I moved on, I knew moving on in sectionals meant the competition was going to be a lot more challenging.”

Pekin DragonsRedbird Arena being a little larger venue than PCHS’ Hawkins Gym, Diekhoff said she employed a practice strategy from the beginning that she thought would help her at the larger college arena. She did not use the game floor at PCHS to shoot baskets, but rather, shot at one of the baskets near the bleachers. Although they were folded up when she practiced, she said doing so aided her mental impression of shooting at a basket that was in front of a crowd of seats, as seen at Redbird Arena.

This venue didn’t intimidate Diekhoff, she said. “It’s definitely a different environment knowing you’re at a big university. But I think the floor is about the same, even if it is longer. But we have a pretty big gym in Pekin.”

Diekhoff said PCHS head Coach Becky Fulkerson and her assistant coach, Katie Murphy, “were really excited and really supportive and this has been a pretty fun ride so far,” Diekhoff said. “(My coaches’ advice) was to not be short and flat with my shots.” Diekhoff said she went in also trying to remember another Fulkerson hint to use her legs at the line, too. But both coaches also told her “to have fun and not worry about it, and just enjoy the time while I’m here.”

IHSA“My folks are pretty happy I made it this far,” Diekhoff said about how dad Brett and mom Tiffany feel about their daughter making it to State for this event.

Having practiced for this beginning just before regionals, “I believe I practiced as much as I could for it,” Diekhoff said. “I just came up a little bit short.” With one more season of high school ball left, Diekhoff has one more chance to get back to State.

Advice for players coming up behind her from PCHS’ all-time scoring leader for those girls who want to take a crack at making to the State 3-Point championship: “Just enjoy basketball at the high school because that time goes by really fast.”

FootballSTANFORD – At this time last year, Stanford Olympia High School head coach Mike Rathbun felt a confidence in how far his team would go during that season that he hadn’t felt previously since becoming Spartans coach before the 2011 season. And that confidence was well deserved as the Spartans made it to Illinois High School Association playoffs but were dismissed quickly in their Class 4A First Round game by Quincy Notre Dame.

As the 2015 season opens, Rathbun said he believes his team, which finished with an overall 6-4 mark including four Corn Belt Conference victories, will end this season getting beyond the first round.

Last year, Rathbun recalled, it was his team’s juniors who were fired up about the prospects of getting to the playoffs and brought the seniors in on the notion. Now, those juniors are now seniors “still committed,” Rathbun said, this time to getting another shot at a crown in their Class.

“I’ve got no complaints about where we’re going,” Rathbun said of the improvements he has seen during his tenure on the sidelines.

Part of the turnaround has been the result of Rathbun trying to change the mindset of what the Spartans can accomplish on the field after numerous lackluster seasons. It had been 12 years – 2002 – before last year’s campaign since the Spartans made the playoffs prior to last season.

Stanford-Olympia SpartansPosition-By-Position: Senior Collin Miller will again be under center as the season opens, where he has been sin mid-way through the Spartans’ 2013 away game at Normal University High. “(Last year,) Collin had a real good year operating the offense, (doing it) very efficiently, and he poses an equal threat as both a runner and a passer,” Rathbun explained. Should anything happen to Miller during the course of the season, senior wide receiver Justin Slager would serve as his backup.

Miller will be defended by an offensive front line led by seniors Bo Bauer, T. J. Peters, and Wyatt Spaulding, all of whom made the All-Conference squad last year. “Those three should make a pretty big difference up front,” Rathbun said of that trio. “They do a great job of communicating up front and that’s because they’ve been playing together since they were just kids.”

With the graduations last spring of brothers Austin and Tyler Bruner, senior wide receiver Alex Switzer will step into the forefront of the receiving corps this season. Alongside him will be senior Levi Nieson. Nieson will be making a switch defensively, too, as he moves from outside linebacker to inside linebacker.

Senior running backs Triston Ballinger and Slager “will pick up where they left off last year” at those positions when the season starts, their head coach explained. Rathbun said his team “isn’t particularly large at any one position,” explaining his heaviest man at that position weighs 250 pounds.

In addition to his duties on both sides of the ball, Slager will serve as the Spartans’ kicker.

Despite their size differential, “they all go on forever,” the fifth-season coach said. “They’ve all worked hard in the offseason and are in a position to do pretty well.”

Corn Belt ConferenceDefensive Shake-Up: The Bruners’ departure leaves Olympia with some shifting to be done on defense, Rathbun said, specifically at cornerback. “If a corner makes a mistake, everybody sees the result,” he said. Players wanting the position face a limited learning curve, the coach added.

As for outside linebacker, the other position for which there is competition, “anybody can cover a pass,” Rathbun said of his search for top-notch defensive staffers. “I want to see who can run reads, cover passes, and serve as kind of a total package we’re looking for.”

Seniors Cole Hamel and Nieson will serve in their linebacking positions, Rathbun explained.

Squib Kicks: Rathbun said Oly’s 2014 record inspired his players to visit the weight room more regularly during the offseason…..Oly opens the season at non-conference foe Champaign St. Thomas More Aug. 28….Prairie Central opens the Spartans’ home schedule Sept. 4….Rathbun’s four-year coaching record at Olympia is 12-25 including an 8-20 Corn Belt Conference mark and 0-1 in post-season play.

FootballBLOOMINGTON – As a collective body, Illinois Wesleyan University’s football team knows they can improve on a 2014 season where they got more than they expected in injuries and disappointing outcomes, and less in terms of victories as a result, culminating in a 4-6 season, including a 2-5 conference mark.

So when the preseason poll came out from the Collegiate Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin predicting how teams would finish this year, the Titans were seen to finish third this season behind Wheaton College, who is predicted to win the conference this year, and North Central predicted to finish second. That, understandably, doesn’t sit well with the Titans head coach, Norm Eash, entering his 29th season patrolling the sidelines.

“We’ve got a successful program here, and 4-6 is not the standard that we have here,” Eash said. “So, we were disappointed and frustrated a little bit last year. There were some things that we couldn’t control.”

That included losing a total of five quarterbacks at points during the season, beginning with starter Jack Warner, now a sophomore, being sidelined with mononucleosis after playing 5 games, and Donovan Laible being sidelined after two contests with a torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament in one knee which he has spent nearly the past year rehabbing to get back on to the field should the need arise.

“Those are things you sometimes can’t control,” Eash said. “But the things that we looked at after the season were that we were still in every ball game that we played. Of our six losses, four of the six were by 6 points or less. That was with young, inexperienced players.”

Illinois Wesleyan FootballThe caution Eash puts out to opponents as this season opens is that all of those young players from last season are back year, “so expectations are very, very high.”

“We have a veteran team,” Eash added. “We have a talented team. We have a team that has enough talent to win a league, so we have to make sure that we take care of business.”

Laible got hurt in the game against Augustana last October, damaging his anterior cruciate ligament in one knee in a contest that more resembled a baseball score with the Titans losing, 7-2.

As a result of how the 2014 season turned out for IWU, Eash said the biggest thing the coaching staff needed to do both during the season and during the offseason “was not to panic. We have talented kids. When you have them healthy, you can win some ball games. We just didn’t have them together healthy all at the same time after the third game of the season.” That third game last year was a road game at Simpson College in September.

Morton’s Monferdini Finds More Technique Involved: Since coming to IWU from Morton High School and seeing what it takes for a college football team to try and succeed through a season, Titans sophomore offensive lineman Nicholas Monferdini said being part of the Titans has taught him that “everything done on this team takes a lot more technique than in high school, so you have to work harder and more often than you did in high school” to succeed.

The 6 foot-4, 255 pound Monferdini said he knew he would be playing at a higher level once he got to IWU, but just didn’t realize the level he was entering in to. As he entered college, he just knew he needed to step up his own game. “Now I’m used to it, and hoping to try to get into some games this season.” As for the CCIW pre-season rank, “It just means we have something we need to prove,” Monferdini said.

CCIWWashington’s Herrell Wishes He’d Known These Things: The college game, regardless of division, is a whole new ball game from the high school game, and IWU running back Austin Herrell said he wishes he knew then what he has learned now in his first two years as an IWU player.

“I know in high school, I always ran really tall,” said the 6 foot-4, 210 pound junior running back, and Washington Community High School product. “Coming in here, I learned that you have to run lower, you have to be smarter when reading defenses, and which holes you choose to run through. It’s learning to make decisions quicker and being quicker overall.”

Squib Kicks: IWU kicks off the 2015 campaign on Sept. 5 with a non-conference away game Indiana’s Franklin College….The Titans will host non-conference opponent Alma College at Tucci Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 12 starting at 1p.m…..IWU will host Millikin University for its homecoming game on Saturday, Oct. 10 starting at 1p.m…….Wheaton College will be the opponent for the last home game of the season on Saturday, Nov. 7, which will also be IWU’s Senior Day game.