Illinois women take high-pep approach to rise to No. 15

Illinois women take high-pep approach to rise to No. 15

Women

Illinois women take high-pep approach to rise to No. 15

As Illinois finished arguably its best season during her tenure, Renee Slone wondered what the next step might be.

The Illini ended the 2016-17 campaign ranked 41st and made regionals for the first time in five years, but as the season wound down, Siyun Liu – possibly the team’s best player – began the transfer process. (She eventually moved to Wake Forest.) Signee Reena Sulkar would be tending to a family matter and not join the team in 2017-18.

Illinois was down two key players and saddled with a smaller roster. But the coach didn’t panic.

“I figured we have got a strong team of seven young women here,” Slone said. “We’re going to be just fine.”

And then some.

In Slone’s 12th season at the helm, the Illini have broken out. The group won its 2017 opener and finished no worse than fifth in five fall starts to rocket to a No. 15 ranking. That’s higher than the No. 22 Illinois men’s squad – a perennial national title contender.

At the team’s annual trip ahead of the season, there was a change in the air.

“You couldn’t necessarily put your finger on it, but it just felt a little different,” Slone said.

It’s since become more defined. Illinois’ rise circles back to one word: energy. The team realized its high-energy approach toward regionals keyed its success and made a point to pounce on it.

That’s meant a more concerted effort to interact during rounds. The No. 1 tenet is consistently waving to teammates during play, a gesture intended to keep the positive energy flowing.

It’s been so effective, Illinois has seen opponents copying the tactic. In the season-opening win, the energy emphasis was a clear game-changer.

“We just immediately realized, this is why we did so well,” sophomore Tristyn Nowlin said.

And the team added a twist to the energy approach: Senior Dana Gattone has an obsession with saguaro cacti, and her enthusiasm flowed over at last spring’s Albuquerque Regional. That gave the group a quirky energy-boosting idea: Celebrate birdies by jumping up and putting their arms in the air like a saguaro cactus. Oh, and they yell, “Fuego” (supposedly to note that the team is catching fire).

Yes, it’s gotten some curious looks from other teams this fall.

“We can never explain it very well,” Nowlin said with a laugh. “(But) it works for us, so we stick with it.”

Illinois doesn’t boast a star player (Bing Singhsumalee is the highest-ranked at No. 70, with Nowlin second at No. 100), but it has six in the top 225.

Slone also has introduced internal leadership teams to her program in recent years. This season there are five (focused on brand/core values, academics/team building/social, motivation/workouts, community service and practice), with each player being a part of two teams. Team leaders offer boosts and communicate reminders. This structure may serve well in future years, with four seniors leaving after this season.

“We really want to keep that culture going,” said Grace Park, one of those seniors.

With all the success, the program anticipates what could be its first team NCAA Championship appearance – a goal well within reach this spring.

At the very least, the group’s rise has earned it some bragging rights versus the men’s squad.

“We’ll joke (with them), ‘We are a golf school, but we may be turning into a women’s golf school,’” Nowlin said.

If this path continues, anything is possible.

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