Tate: UI softball holds out hope

Tate: UI softball holds out hope

In 1985, Gene Sullivan led Loyola Chicago into the NCAA Sweet 16 ... the Ramblers’ last venture into basketball’s inner circle.

But the late coach’s teams weren’t always that successful, so he must have warned his daughter how stressful it can be when the team isn’t winning.

If Terri Sullivan is feeling heat, you’d never know it. The Illini softball coach is the same talkative, ultra-positive, optimistic self — well, maybe not quite as optimistic — as she ponders a 13-for-14 tailspin with Indiana coming to Eichelberger Field for 1 p.m. doubleheader Saturday.

Not everybody attends the UI games, but everyone has an opinion. Softball, whether it’s fastpitch or slowpitch, has touched nearly everyone with its popularity over time. Dating back, Decatur and Aurora put Illinois on the international map with their fastpitch powerhouses. When males began to migrate toward slowpitch, the women captured the fastpitch game. It’s their game now, but adult men still follow it.

Over the years, it’s been a rise-and-fall story with Champaign-Urbana at one time among the nation’s per-capita participation leaders. This has slowed, particularly with Urbana bailing out. The Champaign Park District now picks up softball entries from Urbana and handles the only three youth leagues in the Twin Cities, four men’s adult leagues of 14 teams each, a women’s league, a senior league and several church and co-rec entries.

Numbers don’t lie
When Terri Sullivan was hired to initiate the UI’s Big Ten softball entry in 2000,
the unanimous feeling was: “It’s about time.”

And it didn’t take long to get the Illini rolling. They were 49-23 in 2001, finishing fourth in the conference. They won 45 games in 2004, taking second in the Big Ten and reaching the same NCAA Sweet 16 level as her dad. As recently as 2010, the Illini finished 16-2 and a game behind Michigan in the standings. And they were a highly respectable third in 2011.

Now the critics are asking: “What have you done for me lately?” And, “Has it slipped so far that she can’t turn it around?”

What we’re seeing is a perfect storm of weak hitting (outfielder Alex Booker, at .346, is alone over .285) combined with a previously effective pitcher, Pepper Gay, who carried a 58-30 career record into her senior season and is a disappointing 6-15 with a 4.80 ERA. Control issues are part of it, Gay permitting 117 walks along with 94 hits in 1192/3 innings. Offensively, the Illini are batting .229, have been outscored 188-101 and been blanked seven times.

“We haven’t talked about it publicly,” Sullivan said, “but this has been an emotional year for Pepper. Her brother, with whom she was home-schooled in Georgia, died in a driving accident, and her sister, who is in her late 20s, had a stroke. It has been tough on her.

“We came in with great expectations after Pepper finished so strong last season (10-5 down the stretch). She still has great movement on her pitches but, when batters lay off balls that are a couple of inches off the plate, she gets in trouble. Against Minnesota last Sunday, she gave up just four hits but two of them were homers (accounting for seven runs).”

The No. 2 pitcher, freshman Shelese Arnold, is 5-10 and allowing more hits than innings pitched.

Tournament talk
Sullivan repeatedly has shaken up the lineup. She is contemplating five freshmen in Saturday’s starting lineup, and that could shuffle again in Game 2.

“It’s an odd year,” she said. “We’ve faced adversity but only on the field. Difficult as it is when you’re losing, we’ve stuck to our three golden rules: ‘Compete hard, be accountable and maintain a positive attitude.’

“There’s nobody walking around saying, ‘Poor me.’ We just need a clutch hit here and there.”

Of course, a “clutch hit here and there” wouldn’t have helped much in the Northwestern series (outscored 23-1) or against Eastern Illinois (12-1). Clearly, the team is displaying signs of loser’s fatigue.

Sullivan says help is on the way. Californian Jade Vecvanags and Texan Brandi Needham are big winners as prep hurlers, and both are versatile athletes who will
compete for opportunities at the plate next season. The incoming shortstop, Ruby Rivera, is called by Sullivan “the best we’ve ever had at that position,” and the slot will
be open with senior Jessica Davis graduating.

The immediate job is ending this nine-game losing streak, giving these athletes something to smile about, and building some momentum going into the Big Ten tournament May 9-12.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.