Illinois notebook: Golf program gets boost from practice facility

John Supinie

Quincy High School senior Luke Guthrie signed a letter of intent with the Illinois golf program after receiving interest from powerhouses such as Texas and Oklahoma State. Guthrie can't wait to practice indoors at the Demirjian Golf Practice Facility.

"I wish high school would end right now,'' Guthrie said. "I might just throw a bed in there and sleep there, too. It's awesome. It's got everything you need. I don't know what else you can get.''

Freshman Scott Langley, one of three Illini to win tournaments this season, already noticed an improvement in his game after one winter of work in the 14,150-square-foot building that features a 6,300-square-foot indoor chipping and putting area, six heated hitting bays and other amenities such as computerized swing training.

"For me in the past, the thing that's hardest to get back was my feel, touch and short game,'' Langley said. "This spring, I felt almost the opposite. I had more confidence in it.''

The Illini men's golf program already sees the benefits from the $5.1 million building that opened in August. Recruiting received a boost -- the Illini signed two of the state's three high school champs from last fall and have a commitment from the third -- and performance improved on the course, where Illinois won invitationals the last two weekends.

Illinois plays one more invitational before the Big Ten Championships on April 25-27. The Illini, who won the Marshall Invitational and the Fighting Illini Spring Invitational over the last two weekends, are 10 to 15 teams inside the bubble for their first NCAA bid since 2004, coach Mike Small said.

The Illini spent up to 3 hours per day at the practice facility, about 2 hours in the indoor putting and chipping area and hitting 25,000 balls this winter.

Freshman Chris DeForest carded a school-record 63 while winning the D.A. Weibring Invitational in Normal last fall. Langley shot a 65 on his way to the Argonaut Invitational title in Pensacola, Fla., in February. Sophomore Matt Hoffman won the Fighting Illini Spring Invitational on Sunday. The trio will mesh with the incoming recruits.

Guthrie won the Class 3A state title by five strokes in October. When he signed in November, he was ranked seventh in the American Junior Golf Association national rankings and fifth in his class. His brother, Zach, was later hired as an Illini assistant golf coach. By capturing the Class 2A title last fall, Mason Jacobs, of Metropolis Massac County, became the IHSA's first three-time state champ. He turned down offers from Alabama, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Tennessee.

"Without that building, we'd get Luke and Mason to come to town, hang out for the weekend, like it, like what we're doing and like the team,'' Small said. "Then they would say, 'Gosh, coach. This is awesome, but I just can't do it.' I've had two or three top kids say, 'If you were anywhere else down south, I'd play for you, but I can't take four or five months off in the winter.' ''

Class 1A state champ Peoria Christian junior Jonathan Hauter, the reigning two-time Peoria Journal Star player of the year, also committed to the Illini.

Illinois finished second in the Big Ten Championships over three straight seasons, the last in 2004, but the Illini haven't finished higher than fifth in the Big Ten over the last three years. Small, the reigning PGA professional of the year, grabs exposure for the program with his five major tournament appearances over the last four years -- he shared the 18th green on national TV during the PGA Championships' awards ceremony last summer when receiving low PGA club pro award.

"They know my background,'' Small said. "Beyond that, they have a place to practice and work on their game all winter. That's the kicker. That's why we're getting these kids.''

Women’s basketball

Illini junior guard Lori Bjork, the school's all-time leading 3-point shooter with 214 made in her career, announced that she will transfer. Bjork has one year of eligibility remaining. Apparently, chemistry issues grew between Bjork and first-year coach Jolette Law.

Sophomore center Jenna Smith earned team MVP Sunday. Smith led Illinois in scoring (18.3 points per game) and rebounding (9.4). She was a first-team all-Big Ten pick and honorable mention All-America by The Associated Press.

Illinois secured a commitment from point guard Eboni Mitchell of Southwest DeKalb High School in Decatur, Ga. Mitchell averaged 22 points and 10 assists while leading Southwest DeKalb to wins in the Class 4A semifinal and state championship games. Mitchell, redshirt freshman Lydia McCully and incoming freshman Fabiola Josil will likely battle for the starting point guard spot next fall.

In other news

The women's gymnastics team placed third at the South Central Regional championships, one spot away from reaching the NCAA national championships. Freshman Allison Buckley earned regional gymnast of the year. Buckley and sophomore Nicole Cowart advanced to the NCAA meet. …

Tickets are $5 for the Ultimate Basketball Challenge, a wheelchair basketball game featuring the Illini men's and women's basketball teams and the Illinois men's and women's wheelchair teams. Doors open at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Huff Hall. The program begins at 7. ...

John Supinie can be reached at For more coverage, read Illini Talk blog at and