Illinois softball adds athletes in the circle

Plenty of Illinois sports had a number of recruits ink letters of intent on Nov. 14.

Even with National Signing Day taking place almost a month ago, we'll take a look each Wednesday leading up to Christmas at some of the recruits other Illini teams were able to sign. Last week we profiled volleyball coach Kevin Hambly's three additions to the Class of 2013. 

Next up: softball.

Terri Sullivan reminded the assembled media members and Illinois personnel about the Illinois softball team's 2013 season opener before addressing her newest recruiting class.

The Illini, who went 27-26 in Sullivan's 13th season as head coach, will start the season on Feb. 8 against Alabama in the UNI Dome Tournament on the campus of Northern Iowa.

"I get really jacked when I talk about that day," Sullivan said. "Right up there as far as excitement goes is signing day."

Illinois signed five high school seniors who will call Eichelberger Field their new home.

Two are in-state players (Nicole Evans and Alyssa Gunther), two come from California (Ruby Rivera and Jade Vecvanags) and one hails from Texas (Brandi Needham).

Pitching was a focus Sullivan and her staff placed on the Class of 2013.

By the time this class arrives, Pepper Gay and Jackie Guy, who should handle the majority of the innings for Illinois this season, will have graduated.

"We really needed to replace them," Sullivan said, "(and) we decided that in the circle we needed better athletes."

Enter Vecvanags and Needham.

Vecvanags is from Orange, Calif., and attends Orange Lutheran High School. Her junior season saw her compile a 16-1 record with a 0.86 earned run average and 155 strikeouts in 114 innings.

Needham is from Dripping Springs High School in Dripping Springs, Texas, where she takes a 57-12 career record and 414 career strikeouts into her senior season. She went 31-3 as a junior last year with a 0.70 ERA in 210 1/3 innings.

Not only will Sullivan rely on Vecvanags and Needham in the circle, but also in the batter's box.

Vecvanags hit .407 with 10 home runs and 26 RBI last year while Needham hit .436.

Sullivan said Vecvanags has played first base and Needham has played second base in the past.

"Brandi and Jade hit," Sullivan said. "Jade has great power. We were recruiting her this summer, and I was beyond the center field fence (when) the ball landed right at my feet. Brandi is a lefty that's a triple threat. They're not just wannabe hitters that are pitchers. They're hitters. It'll be tough to keep them out of the lineup."

Rivera is a shortstop from Garden Grove, Calif., and attends Pacifica High School. She is a three-year starter and brings a superb defensive skill set.

"She not only makes the routine plays, but she makes those ESPN plays," Sullivan said. "The thing about it is she makes those ESPN plays look like routine plays. She does something different every time we go watch her play. She has exceptional hands and can throw from all angles. Just a really fun player to watch."

Evans, from Glen Ellyn, is an outfielder at Trinity High School, where she hit .429 with eight home runs, 35 RBI , 11 doubles and five triples last spring. She enters her senior season with 30 career home runs.

"Evans is a power-hitting outfielder," Sullivan said. "We have tremendous speed in our outfield this season. We needed some more power. She can hurt you with one swing of the bat."

Gunther, who goes by the nickname "Gunny", is a second baseman/outfielder at Tinley Park High School. She hit .559 last season and stole 40 bases for the Titans. The three-year starter has hit above .400 each season of her high school career.

"She's just a steady infielder who gets better every time there is more pressure," Sullivan said. "To earn respect as a player, you have to perform under pressure, and every time we see this kid in a pressure situation, she does just that."

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