Fred Kroner: UI softball storylines
Doesn’t it always start here?
Pitchers Pepper Gay and Jackie Guy are two of the five seniors who were on last year’s roster. Only one Illini (Shelese Arnold) has thrown in a collegiate game.
Not to worry, coach Terri Sullivan said.
“I’m excited about our staff,” she said. “Last year when we started to make our run (winning nine consecutive Big Ten games), Arnold was the one who got us back on track. She is locating her pitches and hitting her spots better.”
The junior will be joined in the rotation by true freshmen Brandi Needham and Jade Vecvanags. Sullivan said they are ready to contribute immediately.
“They’ve played high-level travel ball,” the UI coach said. “Their confidence level is high for young pitchers. They’re not afraid to get out there.
“Shelese should have the ability to go the distance, but we will use all three of our pitchers. All three will play significant roles. We’re more athletic on the mound, and that’s a key to be able to field the position.”
Needham and Vecvanags are both right-handed throwers who are left-handed hitters.
The pitching depth has created interesting practice scenarios.
“They challenge us,” Booker said, “but we challenge them.”
Last year’s top hitter (Alex Booker) and last year’s top run producer (RBI leader Jess Perkins) return, but Sullivan anticipates plenty of punch throughout the lineup.
“Our team has been training since August, and what we’ve shown is more power at the plate,” Sullivan said.
Booker, an outfielder who was chosen for the Big Ten’s preseason all-league second team, sees an improved offense.
“We have a high-powered offense,” Booker said. “Our offense is phenomenal.”
Booker batted .352 as a junior. Sullivan expects to see a more balanced attack this spring.
“She’ll be surrounded by a lot of weapons,” she said. “We have players who run well, and there’s more power this year.”
Remeny Perez had a .514 slugging average last year as a freshman, and Sullivan said, “She has a tremendous eye for a power hitter.”
Perez and another sophomore, Katie Repole, each started more than 30 games as freshmen.
Repole is a third baseman and Sullivan said, “We’re excited about what she’s doing. She’s a powerful hitter.”
Booker’s maturation as a hitter started with her approach at the plate.
“Rather than thinking the short game, I’ve worked on hitting away,” she said, “and I’ve developed as a hitter.”
One strength of the Illini — in abundance — is “high softball IQs,” Sullivan said. “This team has a lot of those intangibles. They have the ability to think ahead one or two plays.”
The players are making the grade in the classroom as well. For the fall semester, the cumulative team grade-point average was 3.50 and for scholarship players it was 3.60.
“We’re taking harder classes, too, in the offseason,” Booker said.
Sullivan is pleased by the overall commitment.
“We have student-athletes who compete hard in and out of the classroom,” she said. “These are driven players.”
That effort carries over to softball.
“Our team is very focused,” catcher Jenna Mychko said. “This is definitely the hardest-working team. We go to practice early and take extra reps.”
Four Illini had perfect 4.0 grade-point averages for the fall semester: Allie Bauch, Nicole Evans (a pre-med major), Brittany Sanchez and Jami Schkade. Bauch and Schkade platooned at second base last spring. However, Schkade underwent shoulder surgery in November and will redshirt this season.
Across the board, Sullivan said she has a committed team that is determined to make last year’s sub-.500 record a memory.
“This is a tight-knit group that understands taking care of business,” she said. “I’m happy with the extra miles these players gave gone.”
Booker and Mychko are the veterans who’ve worn an Illini uniform the longest.
Mychko — who had surgery on her labrum the summer before she started college and then suffered a broken hand the summer before her sophomore season — is healthy and in a position of prominence behind the plate.
“Her leadership has grown, and she seems like a player on a mission,” Sullivan said. “She wants her senior year to be a terrific one.”
Booker, who stole 20 bases last year, was shifted from the leadoff position in the batting order to the No. 3 position in 2013.
“When you make that transition, you become a big-time player,” Sullivan said. “She really delivered. She likes coming up with something on the line.
“She’s enthusiastic and a fierce competitor. They’ve both set the bar high for their teammates.”
Booker said her attitude is a genuine reflection of how she feels about the upcoming season.
“We truly believe we can achieve great things,” Booker said.
It helps, she said, that starting positions aren’t going to be set in stone.
“We have good competition and good battles between people,” Booker said.
Numerous freshmen dotted the lineup a year ago, and Sullivan said that will be beneficial.
“We’ll grow as a team from that,” she said. “They’ll mentor the current first-year class.”
The Illini were solid in the field a year ago, finishing fourth in the Big Ten with a .967 fielding average. Outfielders Booker and Kylie Johnson were two of four Big Ten athletes with at least 20 chances and no errors.
“We have four outfielders who make plays and cover a lot of ground,” Sullivan said.
Newcomer Evans and holdover Brittany Sanchez are the others who will help form a solid outfield corps.
“Brittany is coming into her own as a junior,” Sullivan said. “She gets a great read on the ball and has a terrific arm.”
In the infield, the Illini will need to overcome the absence of Schkade, a Big Ten All-Defensive Team choice. Freshman shortstop Ruby Rivera, a California native, was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year pick.
“She has great instincts and can throw from all angles,” Sullivan said.
Another middle-infield candidate, Tinley Park native Alyssa Gunther, is sidelined until the end of the month with a broken hand. Until she returns, Illinois has 16 squad members who could see action.
That’s plenty, according to Mychko.
“We have a ton of great talent, and everyone can contribute,” Mychko said. “Anyone on the team can step up.”
Illinois will open at home at Eichelberger Field with the second Fighting Illini Classic from March 14-16.