Jeff Huth: Softball storylines

Jeff Huth: Softball storylines

URBANA — The Illinois softball team is entering the Big Ten race with an encouraging 14-7 record and proof it’s capable of competing with the nation’s best.

Just ask No. 13 South Alabama, which earlier this month twice fended off the Illini by scores of 5-3 and, in extra innings, 5-2.

Now it’s on to Phase II of the schedule, with Iowa visiting Eichelberger Field for a conference-opening three-game series that begins at 4 p.m. Friday.

Although comparisons based on nonconference statistics aren’t as meaningful as the final Big Ten numbers will be, the Illini so far stack up well against their league peers across the board.

At midweek, Illinois ranked third in the conference in batting average, fourth in ERA and third in fielding percentage.

“We’re excited about having those three parts working for us,” Illini coach Terri Sullivan said.

Ultimately, the Illini’s fate likely will come down to the performance and further development of pitchers Brandi Needham and Shelese Arnold.

One thing in their favor is a defense that so far appears greatly improved over last season.

At .973, Illinois’ fielding percentage is 11 points higher than a year ago.

That jump, Sullivan says, starts with freshman shortstop Ruby Rivera.

“A difference-maker defensively,” she said. “She’s really made our infield better and likewise our pitchers.”

The newcomer already is in the conversation, Sullivan says, about the best defensive shortstops in program history.

And Sullivan should know because she has coached the Illini since the program’s inception in 2000.

“She can really throw from so many different angles,” Sullivan said. “Has great softball instincts. Ruby just makes plays look easy that you think are going to be hits. Makes the routine plays but also makes the special ones that for her is just another day at the ballpark.”

Big Ten storylines

Strength in numbers
One season after putting two schools in the eight-team Women’s College World Series, the Big Ten again is making a case to be regarded among the nation’s best softball leagues. In the latest USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association poll, the Big Ten has the third-most representatives in the Top 25 with four — trailing only the omni-powerful SEC (eight) and Pac-12 (six). Six-time defending Big Ten champion Michigan is ranked No. 6, joined by No. 16 Minnesota, No. 17 Nebraska and No. 23 Northwestern.

Although Michigan and Nebraska advanced to the 2013 Women’s CWS, it’s worth noting that neither made it to the Big Ten tournament title game last spring. Instead, Minnesota and Wisconsin duked it out for the league’s NCAA automatic bid.

“So there’s obviously talent across the board in this conference, and you could kind of see it last year toward the end of the season — tremendous parity,” Illini coach Terri Sullivan said. She’s seen nothing different this spring to change that opinion. “I think there’s a lot of talent in our conference this year,” the 15th-year UI coach said, “and you certainly have to be ready game in and game out to compete and expect everyone (you face) to be at their best.”

Mighty Mite
Six years ago, a 5-foot-4 Illini shortstop from California belted a Big Ten-record 24 home runs. Now, another mighty-mite shortstop from the Golden State has emerged that will remind Big Ten fans of former UI great Angelena Mexicano.

Michigan’s 5-5 Sierra Romero last season fell one homer short of Mexicano’s conference mark during a remarkable college debut season. Not only was Romero chosen as the 2013 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, she was the league Player of the Year. “I would think in any sport it’s rare (for a freshman to be Player of the Year), and it just shows how gifted of a player she is and how talented,” Sullivan said. If anything, Romero has upped her game this season. At midweek, the Wolverines sophomore led the Big Ten in batting average (an astonishing .493), RBI, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, runs scored and, not surprisingly, walks. And with six home runs, she’s within two of the league leader.

As Illini fans will see when Michigan visits Eichelberger Field in late April, Romero doesn’t get cheated at the plate. “Just takes a tremendously big swing,” Sullivan said. “She gets her money’s worth for sure when she swings it. She’s got great hands, great bat speed, sees the ball well and is a smart hitter. And there’s not a pitch she doesn’t like.”

Mound master
Sara Moulton is the Big Ten Pitcher of the Week. So, what else is new? It’s the Minnesota right-hander’s third such award this season and 11th of her career. At 22-3, the Gophers are off to their best 25-game start in school history, and there is no player more responsible than Moulton.

In 18 games, the Eagan, Minn., native is 15-2 with a 1.17 ERA. On Wednesday, Moulton added to her legacy by becoming the first pitcher in program history to reach 100 career wins with a 1-0 shutout at South Carolina. “She’s one of the best in the country,” Sullivan said. “She just does an exceptional job hitting her spots. She can really pinpoint her pitches and has good speed, has good spin. Is athletic and is just a hard-nosed kid on the mound.” No pitcher in the Big Ten makes it easier for her defense than Moulton. She’s racked up 150 strikeouts in 102 innings, with seven double-figure strikeout games. With 33 more strikeouts, Moulton will break the Minnesota career record held by her current pitching coach, Piper Ritter (1,122 from 2001 to ’04). The Gophers have grown with their fourth-year mound starter.

After finishing with losing Big Ten records in Moulton’s first two seasons, Minnesota last year finished fourth in the Big Ten race and made it to the conference tournament title game en route to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2003. “Their team has some very good players surrounding her now that have joined their program,” Sullivan said. “They’ve built around her in the past three years with some very good offensive players.”

Seeing double
If you guessed that Moulton is the reigning Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, guess again. The 2013 award went to Nebraska senior Tatum Edwards, who won 30 games and shut out 10 opponents. She also was a second-team All-American last spring, becoming the first Cornhusker since 2004 to earn first- or second-team A-A accolades.

Edwards (9-5, 1.35 ERA) and Moulton won’t have to wait long for a showdown this season. The Gophers visit Nebraska for a three-game series starting today. If it appears that Edwards has a particularly good rapport with her catcher, it might have something to do with the fact that the right-hander is chucking to her twin.

Whether working behind the plate or standing next to it with a bat in her hands, Taylor Edwards is the kind of player any pitcher would love to call her batterymate. Through 27 games this season, Taylor is hitting a team-leading .463 with a Big Ten-leading eight home runs. Each has been a fixture in the lineup since they arrived at Nebraska.

During that time, the Cornhuskers have won nearly 70 percent of their games (138-60) and appeared in two NCAA tournaments, going 7-5. “They both have a lot of experience at this point in their careers at playing at a high level,” Sullivan said. “They’re terrific players.” Illini fans can see for themselves. The twins and their Nebraska teammates will visit Eichelberger Field April 4-6.

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