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TEENS: Illini sports program is on the rise

Ben Donner
Ben Donner

Hello everybody, and thank you for reading my first column of 2020. You should have perfect vision reading these this year. (20/20 vision joke).

Speaking of 2020, I think this is the year that the Fighting Illini can totally turn around their sports programs for the better.

Starting off with basketball (everyone’s favorite sport), what if I told you there is a college athlete who is 7 feet tall and near 300 pounds? You probably would think he is a tall football player. No, he is currently averaging 15.8 points per game for the Illinois Fighting Illini, and he’s only a freshman.

His name is Kofi Cockburn (pronounced Coh-burn). This freshman is legit and is trying to turn around the basketball program, but of course he won’t be able to do it alone. That is why he will have the help of last year’s prized 5-star recruit, Ayo Dosunmu and the bigman from Rustavi, Georgia, Giorgi Bezhanishvili.

They are averaging 15.2 (Dosunmu), and 8.4 (Bezhanishvili) points per game, but currently have a season record of 10-5 and a conference record of 2-2, with key wins over No. 5 ranked Michigan and conference foe Purdue. The basketball program hasn’t seen much improvement from the start of coach Brad Underwood’s arrival in Champaign-Urbana, but with these core players intact, the Illini basketball program will hopefully return to tournament form.

Behind Cockburn, Dosunmu and Bezhanishvili, I feel like the Fighting Illini can turn things around. Underwood has recorded four 20-win seasons while making the NCAA Tournament four out his first six years as a Division I head coach. Since the hire of coach Underwood, I feel confident in the basketball program’s future.

As for the football team, you should have seen (if you haven’t been living under a rock for the past two months) the Fighting Illini have made their first bowl game since 2010, and if you didn’t, then stop reading this right now. It was supposed to be a terrific start to Illinois football season by landing five-star DB Marquez Beason and five-star, No. 3 player in Missouri QB Isaiah Williams.

Also with the transfers of QB Brandon Peters, edge-rusher Oluwole Betiku Jr., and star WR Josh Imatorbhebhe, the Fighting Illini were looking like a rejuvenated team off of star running back Reggie Corbin’s breakout season.

That was all until ... tragic news, that same summer of hopes came crashing down when Bobby Roundtree, a star in the making for the Illinois defensive line, did exactly that. Bobby was in Florida, working out and enjoying summer vacation, when he jumped into a pool and suffered a severe spinal fracture, was hospitalized for months afterward and sat out his junior season. (Bobby is rehabbing in Chicago and is ahead of schedule).

But that only lit a fire underneath the Fighting Illini, as the Illini had signature wins coming from a nail-biting defeat over No. 6 Wisconsin 24-23 with PK James McCourt kicking the game-winning field-goal, and of course the biggest comeback in school history coming against Michigan State 37-34, clinching the previously stated bowl game. I believe this is the start that Illinois needed in order to climb up into the tops of the NCAAF world. 

The Illini sports programs should be turned around sooner than later, with the surge in basketball and resurgence of the football team. The baseball team has been on the come-up recently, and the golf program has been decent for about the past decade.

Other than that, I have nothing else to say but “Go Illini” — 2020 is our year.

As always, I am a senior in high school and don’t get paid for my obvious talent, so maybe, I don’t know, help me out (hold for laughter). I’ll catch you next month.

BEN DONNER is a senior at Streator High School returning for his second year as a Times teen columnist. He can be contacted via Assistant Editor Julie Barichello at

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