Trivia question: which Big Ten Universities school has been to the most DI rugby final fours? It’s not Ohio State. It’s not Wisconsin. It is Illinois. The Fighting Illini reached the semifinals in 1980, 1983 and 1985, giving them one more final four appearance than the Buckeyes, who got there in 1990 and 1991. (Penn State has 10 appearances, but is not part of the BTU).
So Illinois has a tradition of winning, just not a recent one.
For the past two seasons, Illinois has competed in DII in the Midwest. They were relegated from DI following an 0-4 finish in the fall of 2009. Their last game in DI was a 113-0 loss to Wisconsin. Saturday, the Illini make their return to DI in Madison against 1-0 Wisconsin.
The Illini finished third in DII in Illinois last season, losing to Southern Illinois, Illinois State and Western Illinois. Their only league win came against winless Eastern Illinois. But they had a fruitful spring, winning the Tournament of Champions, and they’ve had a pretty good preseason, beating Purdue 34-28 and losing a close game to the South Side Irish.
“We have a lot of juniors that are really stepping up in leadership,” said Illinois captain John Huguelet, who played summer 7s with the Chicago Lions.
“When we were in DII, we were competitive, but I don’t think we had that competitive attitude that we needed. We’re really getting on the younger guys and showing them the ropes and kind of trying to be more competitive.”
There are several teams making the jump to DI-A from a lower division this season: Baylor, Sam Houston State, Michigan, Texas Tech, etc. But perhaps no team is making the move following a worse finish in a lower division than Illinois. It took a lot of moxie for the Illini to agree to move to the Big Ten Universities conference, but it’s one no one is regretting.
“Once we made that step we knew we were moving forward and we were going to be as serious as we can and hit the gym. Everybody just kind of realized we were going to be playing bigger teams and we needed to get bigger and better,” said Huguelet.
“It’s definitely exciting. The teams we played before…you have a little camaraderie with them as Illinois teams, but we also now have camaraderie with Big Ten teams. I’m very excited to play Wisconsin, Minnesota and the other teams in our conference. It’s also nice to travel to those other schools. It’s nice to get out of state.”