In softball circle, it's complete 180 for Illini

In softball circle, it's complete 180 for Illini

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Tyra Perry knew one thing for sure about the Illinois softball team she inherited two years ago. The Illini could hit.

Both Nicole Evans and Allie Bauch were coming off double-digit home run seasons, and seven regulars, Evans and Bauch included, hit better than .320.

Keeping the other team from lighting up the scoreboard, though, was more of an issue. Jade Vecvanags — the team's No. 1 starter and innings eater — had the lowest earned-run average at 4.86. The team ERA approached 6.00.

Perry said in her introductory press conference that she wanted to "enhance" Illinois' pitching "as quickly as possible."

Illinois kept hitting in its first season with Perry at the helm. Evans provided the power and run production while leading a cast of six .300 hitters. That didn't change this spring either, as Evans set the program's home run and RBI records and again led six Illini batting .300-plus.

But the past two seasons have also seen Perry accomplish what she set out to do when it came to Illinois' pitching.

Vecvanags and Breanna Wonderly both posted sub-3.00 ERAs last season, and Wonderly slid into the ace role this spring with ease, boasting a 20-14 record and 2.73 ERA. Local products Taylor Edwards (14-2, 2.67 ERA) and Erin Walker (3-2, 3.27 ERA) round out the rotation.

That level of production — and maybe more — will be needed when Illinois (37-18) opens NCAA regional action at 11 a.m. Friday against Marshall (41-10) in its return trip to Lexington, Ky.

"I like to think that I'm fairly smart, and if you're going to coach softball you need to have a focus on pitching," Perry said. "Everything generates and radiates out of the circle. Pitching was a huge part of every single thing we evaluated. Our pitching had to go right for this season to go well."

Wonderly has been at the center of that this spring. The senior right-hander out of Centerview, Mo., has appeared in all but 14 games. While her innings have increased every season since she transferred from Heartland College prior to the 2015 campaign, her ERA and batting average against have dropped — precipitously in both cases.

"You look at the evolution of Breanna Wonderly, it's a beautiful thing what she's done just over a few short years," Perry said. "Mostly her confidence radiates out to the team. We trust her."

Wonderly said she trusts herself more, too. She trusts the defense behind her. And it all started with a push from Perry.

"She knows where we can get, so she just pushes us in every possible way," Wonderly said. "I would say, mentally, she knows what I can handle. That's the hardest thing as a pitcher — to keep your thoughts between your ears and calm them down and just remember to trust your stuff every time."

That's what Edwards finds herself fighting. The Arcola native romped through the nonconference portion of the season, going 10-1 with a 1.90 ERA. She's pitched more sparingly in Big Ten play.

"My pitches aren't right where I want them to be, but that's something that my coaches are working through with me and I'm working through with the other pitchers," Edwards said. "I'm just pushing because I know I'll come out of it. I don't know if I can compare it to a slump because I'm in complete control, but I can say I'm learning a lot about myself and my coaches and how much they trust me."

Walker, who won an NJCAA Division II national championship in 2015 at Kankakee Community College and then played at Parkland last season, is spending her first season on the Illinois pitching staff learning as much as she can from Wonderly and Edwards. Calling herself "always a nervous pitcher," the Tuscola graduate said she's working on pushing her emotions in a positive direction.

"They're definitely people I want to look to because of the way they carry themselves on the mound," Walker said of Wonderly and Edwards. "Being able to work with them every day and see how they carry themselves and ask them what they think about certain situations is the most helpful thing for me."

The ability to work together, Wonderly said, is the biggest strength of the Illinois pitching staff. Edwards called the group "a collective unit."

"Being able to step out there knowing each and every pitcher is pulling for you and wants you to be successful," Edwards said, "is the best thing about this pitching staff."


Lexington Regional pairings

Game 1: Marshall (41-10) vs. Illinois (37-18), 11 a.m.
Game 2: DePaul (29-21) vs. Kentucky (36-17), 1:30 p.m.

Game 3: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 11 a.m.
Game 4: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 1:30 p.m.
Game 5: Loser Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 4 p.m.

Game 6: Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 5, 11 a.m.
Game 7: Rematch Game 6 (if necessary), 1:30 p.m.


Regional roundup

Illinois left Wednesday afternoon for Lexington, Ky., and its return trip to the NCAA regional on the campus of the University of Kentucky. Here’s more of what you need to know:

Last year’s NCAA regional was the first taste of postseason softball for this group of Illini. Going back to Lexington this spring gives them an edge — even if Sunday’s selection show didn’t have the same drama. “This year we didn’t have the emotional tears and everything, but everybody was just as excited as we were last year,” senior pitcher Breanna Wonderly said.

Illinois fell into the “happy to be here” category last season in its first NCAA tournament since 2010. The Illini nearly beat Utah in their first game, took down Butler in extra innings and then nearly did the same to Kentucky before falling 3-2 in eight innings as their season ended. “This year, we all know and believe we have the capabilities and talent to win it,” sophomore pitcher Taylor Edwards said. “We have to go in with a little bit more swag — not just be excited to be there, but be excited to be the team everyone wants to beat.”

Playing as the No. 2 seed in Lexington has some perks, other than Illinois being recognized for its 37-18 season. “The NCAA tournament committee assigns you a hotel according to your seeding,” Illini coach Tyra Perry said. “We’re in a much nicer hotel this year.”

Illini catcher Stephanie Abello should figure on being active in Friday’s 11 a.m. game against Marshall. “They have a couple kids that have really gaudy numbers as far as stolen bases,” Perry said. “They’re going to try and press the issue there.” The Thundering Herd (41-10) is led in that regard by second baseman Elicia D’Orazio, whose 56 stolen bases in 65 attemtps leads the nation.

Kentucky is one of 13 SEC teams in the NCAA tournament. Thirteen is the SEC in its entirety, and the Wildcats are one of eight SEC teams hosting a regional. Minnesota, the No. 1 team in the country with a 54-3 record, of course, is unseeded and playing away from home. “We’re talking about Minnesota softball in Minnesota — cold-weather softball — and (coach Jessica Allister’s) team has done amazing things this year,” Perry said. “We’ve had to face them. They’re tough. I do think there’s a respect factor there. We are motivated to do our part in our region, and it will be interesting to see what Minnesota does as well.”

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