Keeping up with ... Hersey's Katie Janonis

Have you heard the one about the collegiate diver who's afraid of heights?

Illinois State senior Katie Janonis has.

And as ironic as it seems, the Hersey High School graduate has shed this unique occupational hazard well enough to become arguably the best diver in the Missouri Valley Conference.

"As long as I'm somewhere that doesn't have any windows, I'm okay," she said. "I'm all right flying but I really don't like being in high places."

Despite her aversion for heights, Janonis will head into this weekend's MVC Championships in Carbondale occupying the top perch among all conference competitors in the 1-meter and with the second-highest score on the 3-meter. She's been named the MVC Diver of the Week on five occasions this season and hopes to accent her performance at the conference meet by qualifying for regionals.

That's a lot to accomplish for someone who didn't even concentrate on diving until after she discovered a small fracture in her back as a high school sophomore. That ailment, in the L-5 vertebrae, didn't require formal medical treatment but forced her to abandon a bright gymnastics career by the time she was a senior.

"The doctors told me to quit gymnastics but I really didn't take their advice," she said. "But eventually I knew that my body couldn't take the pounding (of gymnastics). And diving was actually easier on my back, even though it wasn't what I originally wanted to do."

The fracture is likely hereditary, as both of Janonis' siblings, older brother Chris and younger sister Kelcie, are also afflicted. Janonis has a particularly close relationship with her brother, whose wrestling career was cut short due to his back problems.

In high school, the two had a playful competition to see who could get their names onto the marquee at Hersey as a state qualifier. Katie Janonis eventually did so three times, in gymnastics as a junior and in diving both of her last two seasons.

"When I was thinking of stopping gymnastics, he said 'You can't give up now, you've got to get onto the marquee,' " she said. "He's my rock, and my good luck charm. When I'm upset with something, I go to him."

While Janonis hasn't had much to be upset about lately, her diving career didn't always have the same upward trajectory. As a relative newcomer to the sport, she faced a steeper learning curve than others. Before beginning her career at ISU, which also had recruited her for gymnastics, Janonis had never stepped onto a 3-meter board.

She learned, however, that her gymnastics background would serve her well and her technique is dramatically improved from where it began.

"Now I'm more of a diver than a gymnast trying to dive," she said. "Looking back on it now, I think I did pretty well as a freshman and have gotten better since."

That improvement is readily apparent in her finishes at the last two conference meets. As a sophomore two years ago, Janonis was sixth on the 3-meter and fifth on the 1-meter. She followed that up last season with a second-place finish in the 3-meter and a fourth on the 1-meter.

The performance in last February's MVC meet also gave a glimpse into Janonis' mental strength. While warming up in practice two days before the event began, Janonis slipped on the board and injured her foot, eventually ending up with a nasty infection. Two days later, though, she gutted out the 1-meter before diving even better the next day on the 3-meter.

"That has to be my proudest accomplishment," she said. "I sliced open my foot pretty badly. I scraped most of the skin off the top of my foot."

Physical setbacks aside, another obstacle Janonis has faced in her college career is having a different coach each year. But instead of allowing that lack of consistency faze her, Janonis turned it into a positive.

"It was hard when the first coach left but I've taken something from each of them to work on," she said. "My coach now (Bloomington-Normal native Phil Hoffmann) is amazing. It's been really good to work with him."

Once her diving career ends after this year, Janonis plans to help coach the ISU squad next year while finishing work on her degree in biochemistry and molecular biology.

"I don't want to give up diving," she said. "It's a great way to relieve stress."

• South Carolina-Aiken guard Jeremy Fears (Joliet) is scoring at an impressive clip for one of the top-rated NCAA Division II teams in the country. He enters this week averaging 18.5 points per game for the No. 7 Pacers (19-2, 13-1 in Peach Belt Conference play).

He had 12 points and three assists in a 77-59 win over Francis Marion last Wednesday and 15 points and seven steals in a 75-70 decision over North Georgia Saturday. Fears' best game of the season was a 33-point performance at North Georgia Jan. 5, and he has led the Racers in scoring on five other occasions.

Fears is in his first year at Aiken, having transferred from Ohio University after his sophomore season in 2005-06. He started 16 of 19 games for the Bobcats as a sophomore, averaging 9.6 points and a team-best 4.2 assists per game. Fears was a Mid-American Conference All-Freshmen Team member the previous season when he averaged 11 points and 3.7 assists per contest for a team that lost to Florida in the first round of the 2005 NCAA Tournament.

• Last week's College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin men's and women's basketball Players of the Week are both local products playing at Illinois Wesleyan. The men's winner was senior forward Darius Gant (Oswego) and the women's recipient was sophomore center Christina Solari (Maine South).

For the week in which he was honored, Gant, a team co-captain, averaged 20 points and 17.5 rebounds. He made 9 of 12 field goal tries for 22 points and pulled down 20 rebounds in an 87-77 home win over Carthage Feb. 2. The rebound total was the most at the school since 1987. Three days earlier Gant had another double-double (18 points, 15 rebounds) in a 65-61 loss to Augustana.

Gant has started all 21 games this season and enters this week as the Titans' leading scorer (13.3 points per contest) and rebounder (9.9). He's also held or shared the team lead in rebounds in 17 of his team's games.

Gant had two solid games in Illinois Wesleyan wins last week, which left the squad at 13-8, 7-3 in CCIW. He made 5 of his 6 shots Thursday en route to a 13-point, 14-rebound effort in an 81-67 win at North Central and he led the way with 20 points and 13 boards in a 75-71 home victory against Elmhurst Saturday.

Solari was instrumental in two Wesleyan victories during the week she was honored. In a win at North Park Jan. 29, she had 18 points on 9 of 11 shooting and four rebounds in only 21 minutes of action. In her next game four days later, an 80-63 win over Carthage, Solari helped the Titans move into a first-place tie in the CCIW by scoring nine points, pulling down 11 rebounds and handing out four assists.

She was also productive in two road wins last week. In last Tuesday's 77-63 decision over Millikin, Solari had her third double-double of the year (12 points, 12 rebounds) before reeling in 15 more boards in Saturday's 68-59 triumph over Wheaton.

Solari has started 13 of 21 games for the No. 12 Titans (19-2, 9-1 in conference) and is almost averaging a double-double in points and rebounds (9.2 per game in both categories) despite playing only 23.3 minutes per game. She's been the Titans' top rebounder in 15 games this season.

• Two former suburban wrestlers now at Illinois head into the season's stretch run ranked in the top 10 nationally in their respective weight classes. Sophomore Jimmy Kennedy (Grant) entered last week ninth in the country at 133 pounds, and freshman Ryan Prater (Plainfield Central) was tenth at 141 pounds.

The No. 9 Fighting Illini (11-2, 3-1 in Big Ten) won conference dual matches over Wisconsin and Indiana over the weekend and Kennedy and Prater each won twice. In Friday's 24-13 win over the 13th-ranked Badgers, Kennedy (21-4) earned a 5-4 decision over 11th-ranked Zach Tanelli and Prater (19-6) outlasted No. 7 Kyle Ruschell 8-6. Sunday, on the road against the Hoosiers, Kennedy earned a 4-3 decision over No. 12 Andrae Hernandez and Prater had a major decision win over Scott Kelly.

Kennedy has now won seven straight matches. He qualified for the NCAA Championships as a freshman by placing fourth at the Big Ten Championships. He went 2-2 at the national meet and ended the season ranked No. 9 nationally. He was named Amateur Wrestling News' top rookie at 133 in 2007. In high school, Kennedy won the Class AA state title as a sophomore and senior, and finished second as a freshman and third as a junior.

Prater arrived in Champaign after winning the Class AA state title at 135 pounds. He was second at 125 the previous season.

• Miami (Ohio) junior swimmer Malarie Schmidt (Rosary) appears to be peaking at the right time of year. She swam a leg on two of Miami's winning relay teams in the Redhawks' final regular season meet Saturday at Ball State. She led off in the 400 medley, which Miami won in 3:57.65, and was the anchor in the 200 freestyle (1:38.87).

The previous weekend Schmidt swam in seven events and touched first six times and was second once. Against Kenyon College Feb. 1, Schmidt swam the opening leg on the winning 400 medley relay team, won the 200 backstroke in 2:06.39 and was second in the 200 individual medley in 2:08.15. She was victorious in all four of her races the next day in a dual meet loss to Eastern Michigan. She again was on the winning 200 medley relay team, swept the 100 and 200 backstroke (in 57.90 and 2:05.92, respectively) and touched first in the 200 IM (2:08.19).

Schmidt and her teammates are off until the MAC Championships Feb. 20-23 in Buffalo, where she'll aim to improve upon her performances in the last two conference meets. Last year as a sophomore, Schmidt swam the lead leg on the MAC title-winning 200 medley relay team, which set a school and MAC record (1:44.11). She did the same on the winning 400 medley relay team, which also set a school record (3:48.10). Individually, she was third in the 100 back (57.17) and seventh in the 200 back (2:06.24). As a freshman, she swam a leg on the conference champion 200 medley relay team.

While in high school, Schmidt posted a top-three state finish in the 400 free relay all four years and finished in the top six at the state meet in the 100 back as a sophomore, junior and senior.