Urbana, Ill. (Jan. 29, 2013) - Head Coach Terri Sullivan enters her 14th season as the head coach of the University of Illinois softball team with 416 career wins, four NCAA Tournament appearances and a .590 winning percentage. Illinois returns its entire pitching staff, including seniors Pepper Gay (Avondale Estates, Ga.) and Jackie Guy (Buena Park, Calif.), and two of the top three batters of 2012, in leadoff hitter Alex Booker (Gurnee, Ill.), who hit a team-best .303 last season, and power-hitter Jess Perkins (Orland Park, Ill.).
The Illini add a wealth of depth with nine newcomers, who will help increase the speed of the Illini team, while providing a catalyst for improvement among the lineup as the team battles for starting positions.
Once again, Coach Sullivan has put together one of the most difficult schedules in the nation, featuring 14 teams that qualified for the 2012 NCAA Tournament, six Super Regionals participants and three of the eight Women's College World Series competitors. Additionally, the Illini will host a pre-conference tournament for the first time ever, inviting Saint Louis, Western Michigan and Loyola-Chicago to the Fighting Illini Invitational on Mar. 15-17.
The Illini return their full pitching staff from 2012 in seniors Pepper Gay and Jackie Guy and sophomore hurler Shelese Arnold. As Coach Sullivan often says, "Pitching is the name of the game," and with the experience of this trio, the Orange and Blue have high hopes for 2013.
Avondale Estates, Ga., native Gay is poised to complete her career as the most decorated pitcher in Illinois history. A 2012 NFCA All-Region selection and two-time All-Big Ten honoree, Gay enters her final season with the best career opponent batting average at Illinois (.214), ranked second in career strikeouts (463), wins (58), saves (6) and complete games (46), and third in ERA (2.07), shutouts (14) and innings pitched (526.2).
"Pepper continues to hit her spots really well," said Coach Sullivan, "yet she has also expanded her repertoire of pitches. It's just her grit, her guts, her mental toughness and her smarts that make her arguably the best pitcher we've had here."
Fellow senior Jackie Guy brings a versatility to the pitching staff, having experience as both a starter and a relief pitcher, as well as seeing time in the offensive lineup. The Buena Park, Calif., native will be focusing on consistency this season, hoping to play her best every time she takes to the field. She has tremendous power and a great swing at the plate, and will be looking to put up bigger numbers in 2013.
Arnold, a sophomore from Lexington, Tenn., made six relief appearances in 2012, but has shown extraordinary drive in the offseason, fighting to get more playing time this spring. "Shelese came back incredibly strong and determined this fall, and I think she's grown a lot mentally. When she's confident, her pitches move really well."
The Illini have four catchers on the team, led by senior Stephanie Cuevas (Sylmar, Calif.) who started 50 games at catcher in 2012. Redshirt senior Linnea Detrick (West Chicago, Ill.) is anxious to get back on the field after sitting out 2012 per NCAA transfer regulations. Junior Jenna Mychko (Union, Ill.) will battle for playing time and freshman Dana Sullivan (Franklin Park, Ill.) rounds out the behind-the-plate crew.
Cuevas led the Big Ten in 2012 by catching 17 base-stealers, which ties for third-best at Illinois. Cuevas' chemistry with Gay provides a boost for the Illini, and she has worked incredibly hard this fall to become a force on offense as well.
Detrick (West Chicago, Ill.) will have the opportunity to represent the Illini for the first time since 2010, after spending 2011 at Eastern Illinois and 2012 with a required redshirt. The fifth-year senior played in 32 games in 2009-10, and will have a chance to showcase her strong arm from behind the plate this spring.
Mychko has been successful on both offense and defense, and will be looking to find more consistency in her play in 2013. In addition to catcher, she has the potential to see time in the infield this season.
As a first-year player on the depth chart, Sullivan's primary responsibility this season will be to be a leader in the bullpen. "She's a very smart player and catcher, who is working very hard on her skills. She's a popular player on the team, and it's so key to have a really strong bullpen catcher to prepare your pitching staff for relief appearances.
Illinois has a wealth of depth in the infield, with three returning starters and an exciting new third baseman. Fifth-year senior Jessica Davis (Zephyrhills, Fla.) played every game at shortshop in 2012, and sophomores Jami Schkade (Albany, Texas) and Jess Perkins (Orland Park, Ill.) will play second and first base, respectively. Newcomer Katie Repole (Bulverde, Texas) is expected to start at third.
Davis had a breakout season in 2011, hitting .336 with 14 home runs, while making just four errors in 49 starts. According to Sullivan, she is "the strongest player we've ever had. She never stops working on her game and is learning what it takes to be a team leader. We are projecting her to have her best offensive season and to make the routine plays at short."
Schkade made 38 starts at second base in 2012. Though she hit just .158 as a rookie, Sullivan touts that she is the "most improved player of the fall, who expected a lot more of herself this season. She has really matured and gets how important it is to work with her team. She was the most consistent two-way player in the fall, and she is truly committed to this team."
Freshmen Allie Bauch (Hoffman Estates, Ill.) and Danielle Trezzo (Downers Grove, Ill.) could both see time in the middle infield or the outfield. In fighting for playing time, the rookie duo has helped the returning players improve significantly this fall, and each will have the opportunity to see the field in 2013. Bauch is a left-handed batter who is confident at the plate, while Trezzo is a "headsy player with great instincts, who knows where to be and how to communicate. She has the potential to become a tough, grinding player."
Repole, the projected starter at third, is poised to be the communication leader in the infield. She is a mature player with a lot of power, who "gets it done come crunch time." The rookie hit over .500 in multiple seasons in high school, and will make an immediate impact on the team this spring.
Power-hitting Perkins made the move from the third to first base this fall, and is embracing the position. She demonstrates the ability to hit good pitching, ranking third on the Illini in 2012 with a .275 average, a team-high 26 runs and 15 RBI.
Freshmen Remeny Perez (Tustin, Calif.) and Nicole Tobon (Bloomington, Minn.) will back up Perkins at first, each with DP and pinch-hitting opportunities. Perez is a left-handed hitter, who "has a look in the box that a coach likes to see," and Tobon was the 2011 Minnesota AAA Batting Champion.
2012 batting leader, Alex Booker, returns for her third season after hitting .303 with nine stolen bases as the leadoff batter last season. Seeing time primarily in leftfield but also making starts in center, Booker had a .976 fielding percentage in 2012, with three outfield assists.
According to Sullivan, she is "a spirited player who loves Illinois and has really worked hard to earn the respect of her teammates as a leader. She loves the leadoff position, and has a great read on ball in the outfield."
Sanchez started almost every game of 2012 at center field, but may see significant time in right this season due to her strong throwing arm. She is a lefty who can hit for power, and also stole four bases last spring.
Freshmen Kylie Johnson (Kankakee, Ill.) and Jade Smith (New Braunfels, Texas) are expected to see the field a lot in 2013, after both had successful seasons in the fall. A MaxPreps First Team Underclassmen All-America and the Chicago Tribune's 2012 Softball Player of the Year, Johnson has incredible speed on the base paths, and will likely see action in the corner positions. 2011 First Team All-Central Texas selection Smith will be a great vocal leader in center field, who gets great reads on the ball.
Junior transfer Sami Estill (Chatham, Ill.) is a left-handed batter with great athleticism, who will be a key baserunner for the Illini. Originally an infielder, she has made the transition to outfield this offseason.
Additionally, Perez, Tobon, Bauch, Trezzon and Perkins could see time in the outfield this spring, in order to ensure their hot bat is in the lineup.
Sullivan added a large class of newcomers this fall, bringing in eight freshmen and a transfer. The incoming class will provide more depth at each position, and force everyone to push themselves and each other that much hard in order to find a spot in the starting lineup.
As a class, the freshmen help to facilitate the goal of balancing power and speed, adding athleticism to the roster along with the desire to work hard to improve and earn playing time.
The Fighting Illini schedule features 55 regular-season games against 34 different opponents. Illinois will travel to four national tournaments, before returning home to host the first-ever Fighting Illini Invitational on Mar. 15-17. Illinois begins the Big Ten season at home against Wisconsin on Mar. 22.
Of Illinois' 34 opponents, 14 qualified for the 2012 NCAA Tournament and six participated in the Super Regionals. The Illini will face three of the eight teams featured at the 2012 Women's College World Series, including Defending National Champion Alabama.
The Illini will take on seven teams that finished the season ranked in the NFCA Coaches' poll with an additional two opponents receiving votes. They will face three teams which finished in the top 10 in the RPI, including #1 Alabama and #2 California, with 13 opponents ranked in the top 50.
The Orange and Blue will battle four regular-season conference champions and two additional conference tournament champions, facing three of them in the first weekend (Alabama, North Dakota State, Northern Iowa). Of its non-conference opponents, Illinois has five Missouri Valley Conference opponents on the docket, including the top-four finishers of 2012, and plays three teams each from the SEC, Pac-12 and Big East.
Illinois opens the season on Feb. 8 against 2012 NCAA Champion Alabama in their first-ever indoor tournament, held at the UNI Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The Illini will also see 2012 Summit League Champion and NCAA qualifier North Dakota State, Drake, Green Bay and host Northern Iowa, the 2012 MVC regular-season champion, on opening weekend.
The Orange and Blue then head South for the Hilton Houston Plaza Invite, where they will face 2012 NCAA Tournament teams Texas, Houston and DePaul. The Longhorns advanced to the 2012 NCAA Super Regionals, and finished the season ranked eighth in the RPI and ninth in the final NFCA Coaches' Poll.
The Illini spend the following weekend on the West Coast at the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic in Palm Springs, Calif., where they will square off with a trio of Pac-12 teams and ACC Tournament Champion Georgia Tech. The Illini will battle No. 14 Washington, a 2012 NCAA Super Regionals qualifier, No. 25 Oregon State, an NCAA qualifier, and No. 3 California, who advanced to the 2012 Women's College World Series.
On the first weekend of March, Illinois heads to Florida for its final travel tournament of the spring, participating in the USF Under Armour Invitational. While in the Sunshine State, the Illini will meet five teams, including 2012 Women's College World Series qualifier USF and NCAA participant Kentucky.
After taking a weekend off, the Orange and Blue will host the first homestand of the year, inviting Saint Louis, Loyla-Chicago and Western Michigan to Eichelberger Field for the Fighting Illini Invitational on Mar. 15-17.
The Illini play their first mid-week matchup on Mar. 20, facing No. 11 Missouri, an NCAA Super Regionals qualifier, in a neutral-site double-header in Saint Louis. The Orange and Blue then return home for the Big Ten opener against Wisconsin. Illinois will face eight Big Ten opponents in 2012, hosting series with Wisconsin, Nebraska, Indiana and Ohio State, and traveling to Northwestern, Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa.
For the first time since 2008, the Big Ten will sponsor a conference tournament, hosted by Nebraska on May 9-12. All 12 teams will qualify for the single-elimination tournament, and the winner will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.