Roundup: 'Grandma' still chipping in for softball team
URBANA — Danielle Vaji has been active in the Illinois softball program longer than any athlete since the sport was implemented on the campus 13 years ago.
She's a fifth-year senior who has actually appeared in games for five different years. Her sophomore season was ended after five games by a knee injury, and Vaji was granted a medical redshirt.
Her Illini teammates don't let the 23-year-old forget about her age. "They call me 'Grandma' sometimes because I'm the oldest," Vaji said.
UI coach Terri Sullivan has something else she can call the Plano, Texas, native: versatile.
When she needed a second baseman to start the season, Sullivan called upon Vaji, even though it was a position she had not played once in her collegiate career.
This week, when she needed a first baseman to replace Meredith Hackett — who is away from the team for what the coach called "personal reasons" — Vaji was summoned.
"I've played about all the other positions," the upcoming communications graduate said, "but I had never played first base in a game."
Saturday's 8-0 loss to Wisconsin at Eichelberger Field marked her second game at first. In her final season with the Orange and Blue, Vaji has played six positions and started at five of them.
Coincidentally, the position where she had three separate streaks of consecutive starts covering at least 14 games in prior years (shortstop) is one she has played in 2012 for just a part of one game. Vaji is cool with switching all around the field.
"Sometimes I'm needed in different spots, and Coach has confidence in me," she said. "I come in with an open mind and a clear head."
Before Vaji's debut at first base Thursday, she had, she said, "played it briefly in one practice."
Sullivan appreciates Vaji's attitude and acceptance of not having a full-time position at a fixed location.
"I have no doubt about her ability to play any position," Sullivan said. "Anyone can learn from her unselfishness. She loves the challenge of helping her team win."
In both games she started at first base, she also had hits. The lone Illini with two hits against the Badgers' Cassandra Darrah on Saturday was Jess Perkins (2 for 3), the only .300 hitter in the UI lineup (.309).
With home-run leader Hackett gone, possibly until at least next weekend, Vaji expects to be back at first base for today's noon doubleheader against the Badgers. She won't be distraught if she is elsewhere.
"I'm ready to go whenever and wherever," Vaji said.
In track & field:
St. Thomas More product Jade Ackerman of Illinois won the 200 meters Saturday at the Tom Botts Invitational men's track and field meet. Ackerman, a sophomore transfer from Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, finished in a personal-best 21.53 seconds.
Led by Matt Bain, Illini sophomores swept the top three spots in the pole vault. Bain went 16 feet, 9 1/2 inches. Cody Klein (16-3 1/4) and Josh Hodur (15-9 1/4) were right behind.
The Illini went 1-2 in the hammer throw, with freshman Davis Fraker winning with a toss of 206-10 and sophomore Brett Ramirez placing second at 194-5.
Illinois finished third in the five-team meet with 141 points.
In the women's race, Marissa Golliday led a 1-2 Illini finish in the 400. Golliday finished in 54.12 to edge freshman teammate and Missouri native Asia Thomas (54.92).
UI sophomore Stephanie Richartz won the pole vault (13-5 3/4). The Illini placed fourth among six teams.
Rain forced postponement of Saturday's Big Ten game between the Illini and No. 18 Purdue at West Lafayette, Ind.
The contest has been rescheduled as part of a doubleheader starting at 11 a.m. today.