Illini looking for new leaders

Illini looking for new leaders

WINTER SPRINGS, Fla. — Replacing the program's top hitter and top pitcher is a task the Illinois softball team will have to deal with this season.

Not that third-year coach Tyra Perry has lessened her expectations for the Illini after reaching the NCAA tournament each of the last two seasons.

"The goal is always the World Series," Perry said. "I'm always an optimist, so I alway believe we can win."

Nicole Evans, the Illini's all-time leading home run hitter and RBI producer, along with Breanna Wonderly, the Illini's workhorse ace the last two seasons, have both graduated.

"You can say it as many times as you want, but just know that I'm going to cry every time I hear those names," Perry said with a laugh. "We are thankful to have Nicole with us still as a student coach. Her presence alone has elevated our play. Bre is someone who always wanted the ball."

The Illini will get a chance to find out their new leaders both in the batter's box and in the pitcher's circle today when their season starts against Providence at 11 a.m. before facing North Florida at 1:30 p.m. in Central Florida's Friends of Jaclyn Invitational.

One of those possiblities in the circle is Arcola native Taylor Edwards, who went 14-2 with a 2.67 ERA last season.

"She's developed her pitches and gotten a certain air of maturity about her," Perry said. "Her upside is tremendous in that she's such a strong, powerful physical athlete. Taylor has the potential to gain more speed, and if she matches that with her movement, she'll be great."

Other returnees like Annie Fleming (.347 average, 6 home runs, 36 RBI), Stephanie Abello (.307, 13 HRs, 41) and Kiana Sherlund (.343, 2 HRs, 22 RBI, 17 stolen bases) should help solidify an Illinois lineup that plays its first 19 games away from Eichelberger Field.

The home opener is set for March 13 against IUPUI before Big Ten play starts on March 23 at Purdue. Reaching a third straight NCAA tournament — something the Illini have never accomplished — is the ultimate goal.

"Getting to the end in the postseason is tough, so I'm always appreciative of the work put in by the players and the staff," Perry said. "And you have to have a little luck, too."