URBANA — As a high school junior at Rantoul, Hanna Mennenga became the 10th softball pitcher in IHSA history with a 400-strikeout season.
As great as the feat, it was almost as if no one noticed.
“I sent out so many emails,” Mennenga said, “jucos, Division Is, Division IIs, Division IIIs. Only one Division I emailed and said they might be interested.”
That was Northern Iowa.
Mennenga followed up with a senior season at Rantoul where she averaged 1.9 strikeouts per inning. College coaches still didn’t clamor to recruit her. A two-time All-Area selection, Mennenga wound up pitching at Heartland Community College, in Normal, as a freshman.
She remembers a conversation she had with her mother following one game.
“I told her, ‘I don’t know if anyone will want me to play for them (after Heartland),’ ” Mennenga said.
What a difference two years makes.
Now a junior at Eastern Illinois — where she accepted a scholarship offer in January, 2012, and transferred in time to join the team for last year’s spring season — the only ones who don’t want to see the right-hander pitch are the Panthers’ opponents.
With a month left in the EIU regular season, Mennenga is rapidly climbing up the school’s charts. She is fourth in single-season strikeouts (218) and needs 32 more to shatter a record that has stood since 1986.
Her 17-4 record leaves her in a tie for the 10th spot on the school’s Top 10 list and within reach of the single-season record (24). With six shutouts this spring, Mennenga is tied for the No. 8 position at EIU.
When she gets an opportunity — like she had Tuesday afternoon — to pitch against the Illini, it’s a meaningful moment. Growing up less than 30 miles from Eichelberger Field, Illinois “was a school I wanted to be interested,” she said.
Even after she had a stellar season at Heartland in 2011 (22-9 record with 305 strikeouts in 187 innings), Mennenga said, “they didn’t make an official offer.” That adds to her motivation when she takes the field against Illinois.
“I’m happy with my decision. I love it at Eastern,” she said, “but (against the Illini) I’ll show you what you’re missing.”
Against the Illini on Tuesday — with Rantoul’s current high school team watching from the stands — Mennenga fashioned a two-hitter in the Panthers’ 12-1, five-inning win. She struck out 12 and walked three, the first three Illini she faced. She got eight of the first nine UI outs on strikeouts.
EIU coach Kim Schuette made a trip to the pitching circle after Mennenga walked the bases full.
It was a first-inning visit to relax the junior rather than impart words of wisdom.
“I told her, ‘The ball is the same size (as at home). ... Just throw like you know how and you’ll be fine,’” Schuette said. “Hanna is throwing well and getting strikeouts, but more importantly she is doing anything she can for the team.”
In her debut season at EIU, Mennenga was 11-8. It was not what the pitcher envisioned for herself.
“I didn’t do bad, but I didn’t do as great as I could,” said Mennenga, who is majoring in psychology and minoring in sociology. “I don’t know if it was nervousness, but it wasn’t my season.”
The biggest change is not anything mechanically.
“It’s all in my head,” Mennenga said. “I have the confidence I had in high school and my freshman year. I’m getting ahead in the count, where last year I wasn’t as much.”
Not only is Mennenga having a stellar season, but EIU (26-10) has also won 19 of its last 21 games and stands alone atop the Ohio Valley Conference standings.
“Compared to last year, this is awesome,” said Mennenga, who has four Pitcher of the Week citations from the OVC this spring. “It feels really nice and it’s not like one person is sticking out.”
Schuette said Mennenga’s emergence has given the Panthers two quality pitchers this spring. Last year’s ace, Stephanie Maday, is a junior and has a 9-3 record.
“We had end-of-the-year meetings last year, where we meet with all of the players one at a time, and Hanna told me, ‘You have two No. 1s (pitchers),” Schuette said. “She said, ‘I’ll show you the player I am,’ and she came back this year a confident kid.”
Notebook. EIU scored all the runs it would need during a six-run third inning, erasing a 1-0 deficit. Two Panther runs came in when batters were hit by pitches with the bases loaded. Two more were scored when the Illini issued bases-loaded walks. ... UI freshmen Remeny Perez broke up Mennenga’s no-hit bid with a two-out bloop single in the third inning. ... The Illini are 11-22 with losses in 10 of their last 11 games entering a three-game series at Minnesota, starting on Friday. ... Illinois had won 14 of the previous 15 softball games with EIU.