Illini women’s athletics starts to take off in the 1980s

By Mike Pearson

After taking “baby steps” during its first six years of existence, Fighting Illini’s female teams and athletes began growing wings during the 1980s.

This decade is primarily recognized as the time when the University of Illinois female athletes were officially lined up with championship competition, both with the big ten and nationally, but it was also a period of multiple firsts, individual accomplishments, and significant legacy.

The 1980s also saw the rise of championship-producing coaches (Mike Hebert and Gary Winckler) and future Illini Hall of Famers (Mary Eggers Tendler, Celena Mondie-Milner, Nancy Brookhart Cherin, and Jonelle Polk McCloud).

Most Memorable Illini Moments of the 1980s

Becky Kaiser

1980: Long jumper Becky Kaiser became the first UI female athlete to win the All-America award, placing second at the AIAW national meeting.

November 1980: Marianne Dickerson of UI cross country took first place at the AIAW state meeting.

January 13, 1981: History was made at the NCAA annual convention in Miami, when delegates voted 137-117 to include women’s athletic programs within the NCAA governing structure. The action sounded the death knell for the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW).

March 5, 1981: With a win in Illinois-Chicago, Coach Jane Schroeder’s Illini basketball team won their 20thº game, the first UI squad to do so.

August 15, 1981: With the University of Minnesota remaining a potential stronghold, Illinois and eight other Big Ten schools voted to affiliate their women’s athletic programs with the conference. Minnesota joined the others on October 8.

October 23-24, 1981: The first Big Ten women’s volleyball championship was held at the University of Illinois.

November 1981: The Illinois women’s cross country team competed in the first official Big Ten women’s championship in East Lansing, placing ninth as a team.

Kim Brombolich
Kim Brombolich

January 13, 1982: The Illini women’s basketball team defeated the third and undefeated Long Beach State, 97-91, in triple overtime. Kim Brombolich and Lisa Robinson scored UI with 23 points each.

March 1982: Laurie Pederson of Illinois won the Big Ten 100-yard freestyle title, the first individual championship in the UI swim and diving program.

March 14, 1982: In the opening game of UI’s NCAA tournament, host Kentucky defeated the Illinois women’s basketball team.

May 14 and 15, 1982: The first Big Ten women’s outdoor track and field championships were held in Illinois. Rolanda Conda and the 800 meter medley relay team of Jayne Glade, Kathy Pannier, Conda and Gretchen Grier won the first UI relay title.

May 1982: Sandy Sutton became the first All-Big Ten honoree in women’s golf. Illinois ranked fourth out of eight teams in the first conference tournament.

June 1982: Basketball’s Lisa Robinson became the first Illinois female athlete to win the Big Ten Conference Medal of Honor.

June 1982: UI’s Rolanda Carter (800 medley), Marianne Dickerson (10,000), Vegee Elsen (4×800 meter relay), Jayne Glade (4×800 meter relay), Gretchen Grier (800 medley and 4×800 meter relay), Kathy Pannier (4×800 meter relay), Margaret Vogel (4×800 meter relay) and Becky Kaiser (long jump) won All-America honors for their performances at the NCAA Outdoor Athletics Championships.

September 18, 1982: In their first official Big Ten game, the Illini volleyball team defeated Wisconsin.

Marianne Dickerson
Marianne Dickerson

November 1982: In the first Big Ten women’s cross country championship, Marianne Dickerson won All-Big Ten first-team honors with a sixth place finish.

January 3, 1983: Kendra Gantt scored an Illini record of 49 points as the women’s basketball team edged out Kent State 82-60.

March 11 to 12, 1983: The first National Women’s Indoor Athletics Championships was held in Pontiac, Michigan. Jumper Becky Kaiser became Illini’s first female athlete to qualify in an NCAA event (third).

April 1983: The University of Illinois Savoy Golf Course hosted its first Big Ten Championship. UI placed fifth out of a field of nine.

April 29, 1983: A 5-4 victory over Minnesota marked the Big Ten’s first victory in the Big Ten of Illini’s women’s tennis.

July 8, 1983: Mike Hebert was hired as UI’s volleyball coach.

September 16, 1983: Illini’s volleyball defeated Wisconsin 3-0, marking the first victory for a team coached by Mike Hebert.

Karen Brems
Karen Brems

June 1984: UI gymnast Karen Brems became the first female athlete from Illini to win the school’s Athlete of the Year award and win the Big Ten Conference Medal of Honor in the same season.

November 1984: Kelly McNee placed sixth in the Big Ten women’s cross country, earning All-Big Ten first-team laurels. Her team was Wisconsin’s runner-up, UI’s best result of all time.

November 24, 1984: A season-opening victory over Bradley launched Laura Golden’s six-year-old Illini basketball coaching career.

January 18, 1985: Gary Winckler has been hired as head coach for the UI women’s track and field program.

May 1985: The doubles team of Jessie Daw and Kathy Neil became the first Illini women’s tennis player to win the All-Big Ten award.

October 4, 1985: A record audience of 2,632 from the Big Ten watched Illini sweep Iowa volleyball.

October 26, 1985: Mike Hebert’s Illini volleyball team improved their record to 30-0 with a 3-1 win against Ohio State. He went on to win his first Big Ten title.

November 1985: Volleyball’s Mary Eggers was named Rookie of the Year, becoming the first UI player to do so.

December 6, 1985: Illini’s volleyball made his debut in NCAA Tournament action successfully, defeating Western Michigan 3-1. A week later, a 3-0 loss to Southern California in fifth place ended the UI season. at 39-3.

Jonelle Polk
Jonelle Polk

March 1986: Jonelle Polk became the first starting team of the UI All-Big Ten women’s basketball team. She repeated the honor in 1987.

March. 12, 1986: Angie McClellan scored the winning basket with 17 seconds left to give Illini women’s basketball a 69-68 win in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament against Ohio University, her first time. Three days later, Georgia No. 2 defeated Illinois, 103-64.

June 1986: Illinois women’s track and field competed for the first time in the NCAA Championship, placing 49º.

November 29, 1986: A 3-0 sweep at Michigan completed a perfect 18-0 record for the Illini volleyball team and capped the UI volleyball’s second consecutive Big Ten title. The UI season ended 36-3 on December 13 with a loss at the NCAA Tournament in Nebraska.

Mary Eggers
Mary Eggers

December 1986: UI Volleyball’s Mary Eggers received America’s First Team honors as well as being named Big Ten Player of the Year.

March 1987: The Illinois women’s swim and diving team finished fifth at the Big Ten Championships, their all-time best finish.

March 11 and 14, 1987: In the NCAA tournament, Coach Laura Golden’s women’s basketball team beat Bowling Green in the first round, then lost to No. 3 Auburn.

May 1987: Illini women’s tennis coach Mary Tredennick became the Big Ten Coach of the Year.

November 1987: Illini’s volleyball advanced to the NCAA Final Four for the first time. UI lost to the eventual champion Hawaii in the semifinals.

November 29, 1987: With a 73-68 victory over No. 14 Vanderbilt, Illinois women’s basketball claimed its first victory over a nationally ranked team. Ten days later, he defeated No. 13 IUS.

March 1988: Heather Singalewitch became the first Illinois female athlete to be honored as the Big Ten Gymnast of the Year.

Celena Mondie-Milner
Celena Mondie-Milner

May 22, 1988: Celena Mondie-Milner followed the women as Illini’s track and field programs took first place at the Big Ten Championships. It was the conference team’s first women’s title.

May 1988: The doubles team of Kathy Neil and Cynthia Chambers became the first Illini women’s tennis player to compete in the NCAA Championship, losing 7-5, 6-7, 7-6.

November 26, 1988: With a 3-2 victory in Iowa, Illini’s volleyball ended a perfect 18-0 record in the Big Ten. It advanced to the Final Four, but once again lost to Hawaii in the NCAA semifinals.

March 1989: Illini women’s track and field won their first Big Ten Indoor Championship.

May 20, 1989: The UI women’s track team racked up a record 169 points at the Big Ten Championships in Indianapolis, winning their first outdoor conference title.

June 1989: Illinois women’s track and field finished in the top ten of the team rankings for the first time at the NCAA Championship, placing seventh.

June 1989: UI announced that the volleyball competition was moving from Kenney Gym to Huff Gym.

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