Head Coach Terri Sullivan has high hopes for the Fighting Illini in 2014.
Jan. 30, 2014
Urbana, Ill. - Terri Sullivan enters her 15th season as the head coach of the University of Illinois softball team with 438 career wins, four NCAA Tournament appearances and a .581 winning percentage. Illinois returns the bulk of its offense from 2013, including senior Alex Booker (Gurnee, Ill.), who led the team by hitting .352 with 20 stolen bases, sophomore Remeny Perez (Tustin, Calif.), who set rookie records for slugging percentage (.514) and on base percentage (.431) in 2013, and junior Jess Perkins (Orland Park, Ill.), who registered a team-leading 34 RBI last season.
The Illini add a pair of newcomers to the circle, while returning junior pitcher Shelese Arnold (Lexington, Tenn.), who had a breakout season in 2013, recording a 2.75 ERA with two shutouts and a Big Ten Pitcher of the Week award. She is joined by first-years Brandi Needham (Dripping Springs, Texas) and Jade Vecvanags (Orange, Calif.), who are expected to contribute at the plate in the offensive lineup in addition to throwing from the circle.
Once again, Coach Sullivan has put together a difficult schedule, with opponents ranging from 19 different conferences. The Illini are set to play 20 games against 2013 NCAA Tournament participants, including three-game series against Women's College World Series qualifiers Nebraska and Michigan, and a neutral-site game against NCAA runner-up Tennessee, who is ranked No. 1 in both preseason polls. Additionally, the Fighting Illini Classic returns to Eichelberger Field for the second straight season, as Illinois will host North Dakota State, Saint Louis, Nebraska-Omaha and Western Michigan on March 14-16 in a final tune-up before opening Big Ten play.
The Illini return just one pitcher from last season, junior Shelese Arnold, while re-booting the pitching staff with a pair of first-year hurlers in Brandi Needham and Jade Vecvanags. Arnold had a solid sophomore campaign in 2013, making 24 appearances and posting a 2.75 ERA over 117.0 innings. The Lexington, Tenn., native tossed back-to-back two-hit shutouts against Indiana to complete the Illini's first Big Ten series sweep of the season, earning herself the title of Big Ten Pitcher of the Week on April 22. Coach Sullivan looks to Arnold to provide leadership among a young staff this season.
"We are most excited about the strong leadership that Shelese has been providing to her fellow teammates and pitchers," said Sullivan. "She is showing more command of her pitches and has a clear sense of determination and maturity on the mound, which are things that we expect from her now as an upperclassman. Shelese is a smart player, very accountable, and is physically in better shape."
First-year Brandi Needham, who hails from Dripping Springs, Texas, is a four-time first-team all-district selection, who collected three-straight District MVP awards, along with the titles of District Pitcher of the Year, All-CenTx Player of the Year, and All-State Player of the Year in 2011. She went 82-12 in the circle over her final three seasons at Dripping Springs High School, totaling 664 strikeouts, including 278 as a senior, with a 0.72 ERA and 17 shutouts, while setting school records in 12 different categories.
Fellow-rookie Jade Vecvanags comes to Illinois from the West Coast, where she was a 2012 MaxPreps All-American for Orange Lutheran High School in Orange, Calif. Earning back-to-back league Most Valuable Pitcher awards, she was named First-Team All-CIF and OLHS Female Athlete of the Year in 2013. Vecvanags, who may also see time as a utility fielder when she's not in the circle, led the Lancers to back-to-back league championships and three-straight CIF Quarterfinals appearances.
"With Brandi and Jade, we now have three very different styles of pitchers, and this can be a positive for us if they keep working hard and understand that their roles may be different in the circle from game to game," said Sullivan. "Jade is very focused on the mound, and Brandi knows how to manage the game.
"Our pitching staff is extremely coachable; they thrive on getting better every day and keeping their emotions in check. All three of our pitchers are athletic, and we will be looking for Jade and Brandi in particular to swing the bat for us as well, even when they are not on the mound.
"Our pitchers trust their teammates, and making routine plays when our staff is throwing strikes will put us in a good position to have success. The biggest key for our entire team is to always have exception pitch-by-pitch concentration."
"Jenna Mychko is our senior leader behind the plate, and I'm probably most impressed with how much she's invested into her game in the off season," said Sullivan. "It's the best I've ever seen her lead the team. She's carrying herself with confidence and a no-nonsense attitude about the season. That's what we need from her, to give us that great leadership."
Sophomores Dana Sullivan (Franklin Park, Ill.) and Nicole Tobon (Bloomington, Minn.) also have experience at catcher, and are expected to be influential in working with the pitching staff in the bullpen.
Tobon made 17 appearances as a true freshman in 2013, primarily as a pinch hitter. She totaled three hits and four walks in 20 at-bats. Dana Sullivan saw action as a pinch runner, scoring four runs and stealing a base during her rookie season.
Illinois returns a bulk of the infield, especially at the corners, but expects to see some new faces in the middle infield. Sophomore Remeny Perez had a fantastic first season with Illinois, breaking rookie records for slugging percentage (.514) and on base percentage (.431), hitting .308 with seven doubles, five home runs and 16 walks on the year. The lefty power-hitter made 38 starts at first base, where she accumulated a .978 fielding percentage with 17 assists and nine double plays turned.
"We've got competition at every spot," said Sullivan. "Infielders are versatile, and we really believe that we can move them around quite a bit, depending offensively what we want to do.
"At first base, we have Remeny Perez back, who has a big strength in being a lefty power-hitter with a great approach at the plate. At first base, she's really great at catching any ball that comes her way."
Junior Jess Perkins is a utility player with experience at both first and third base, while also seeing some time in the outfield. The Illini's RBI leader in 2013, Perkins hit .278 with seven doubles, five home runs, 16 walks and 34 RBI, scoring 21 times and stealing three bases. Perkins started the first 10 games of 2013 at first base before Perez took over at that spot, upon which time Perkins saw action primarily at third base and right field.
Perkins shared time at third with Katie Repole (Bulverde, Texas). The sophomore from Bulverde, Texas, played in 43 games as a freshman, making 31 starts. During the Illini's late-season winning streak, Repole filled an important offensive role in the middle innings, coming in to hit as the designated player for Big Ten All-Defensive second baseman Jami Schkade. She provided 22 hits, 11 RBI and a team-best three sacrifice flies on the season.
"At third base, Katie Repole is back, and she's another player that I've been really pleased with," said Sullivan. "She's come along well now with her offseason surgery a full year behind her. She's mentally matured as a softball player."
The Illini will see some new faces in the middle infield, after the departure of Jessica Davis '13 at shortstop and the unfortunate loss of Big Ten All-Defensive second baseman Jami Schkade, who is out for the season with an injury. Sophomore Allie Bauch (Schaumburg, Ill.) will step up as a young veteran in the middle infield. Bauch played in 45 of 49 games in 2013, making 40 starts She primarily saw time at second base, but also played nine games at short. The Schaumburg, Ill., native hit .250 with 30 hits, five doubles, a home run, 18 RBI and 16 walks, while going 5-for-5 on the base paths. Additionally, she participated in six double plays, tallying 38 assists and 68 putouts.
"At second base, unfortunately Jami Schkade is out for the season with an injury, but we have Allie Bauch back, who spent a lot of time at second base last season, platooning with Jami," Sullivan said. "She is a very good athlete and another bat that we would like at the plate."
First-year player Alyssa Gunther (Tinley Park, Ill.) will also compete for playing time at second base. The Tinley Park, Ill., native was a four-time all-conference selection, who earned South Suburban Conference Player of the Year and First-Team All-State honors in 2013. A two-time Southtown Star All-Area award winner, Gunther helped lead Tinley Park High School to two Regional Championships, a Sectional Finals appearance, and a third-place finish at the Class 3A State Championships in 2013.
"Alyssa is a competitor," said Sullivan. "She's really sound defensively and is a left-handed batter who can put the ball in play. I thought she had a good fall season for us."
Rounding out the infield, the Illini have a pair of young players who will compete for time at shortstop; sophomore Danielle Trezzo (Downers Grove, Ill.) and freshman Ruby Rivera (Glendale, Calif.). Trezzo returns to the diamond after making 19 appearances as a freshman in 2013, including four starts. Seeing time primarily as a pinch runner when not at short, the Downers Grove, Ill., resident totaled four walks, four runs and two stolen bases.
Rivera hails from Glendale, Calif., where she earned back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards and three straight first-team all-league selections at Pacifica High School. Kicking off her career with the Rookie of the Year award, Rivera completed her high school campaign by being named Pacifica Female Athlete of the Year in 2013.
"Ruby is a really dynamic defensive shortstop," said Sullivan, "and Danielle Trezzo has a year under her belt of being around this team and the game."
"I think it's a real stronghold for us, because we have a lot of playing experience," said Sullivan. "Alex Booker, one of our two seniors this season, has really been our best threat offensively the last couple of seasons. I think Brittany Sanchez has also figured out her game, and her confidence level is high as a junior. She's got a strong throwing arm, she gets great reads on the ball, and offensively is really doing what we need her to do at this point. "
Booker had a fantastic season in left field for Illinois in 2013, earning All-Big Ten Second Team honors as well as a Big Ten All-Defensive Team selection. The speed demon led the Illini with a .352 batting average and 51 hits, totaling 18 walks, five doubles, a triple, 33 runs and 13 RBI. Booker became just the third Illini in program history to steal 20 bases in a season, going an impressive 20-for-21 on the base paths, while posting a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage with seven outfield assists.
Sanchez (Skokie, Ill.) played in all-but-one game in 2013, seeing time at both right and center field. The Skokie, Ill., resident tallied 31 hits and 14 RBI, adding five walks, a team-high three sacrifice flies, and three stolen bases.
Rounding out the returning infield is sophomore Kylie Johnson (Kankakee, Ill.), another speedster on the base paths who tallied 18 steals as a freshman. The Kankakee, Ill., native hit .275 with 36 hits and seven RBI, posting a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage in 47 games.
"Kylie has got that speed," said Sullivan. "When she touches the ball, we really think she's going to get on base, and she's come to feel comfortable out there in right field at this point, after she had played mainly in center for most of her career. We like the progress she has made."
New to the outfield is Nicole Evans, who hails from Glen Ellyn, Ill. A three-time all-state selection and four-time GCAC All-Conference player, Evans helped Trinity High School to a second-place finish at 3A State Championships in 2010, a pair of regional championships, and a sectional championship.
"Nicole Evans is a really exciting first-year player, who is strong and aggressive and extremely coachable," said Sullivan. "I think those four will be working together, and I'm hoping that it's hard to keep any of them out of the lineup.
"We can also put Jade in the outfield as well. She has really good command at the plate and has an intimidating presence in the box as a power-lefty. That's a weapon we could certainly use, so I'm pretty confident to put Jade pretty much anywhere and expect her to do a solid job for us."
The Fighting Illini schedule features 56 regular-season games against 37 different opponents. Illinois will travel to five national tournaments, before returning home to host the second-annual Fighting Illini Classic on March 14-16. Illinois begins the Big Ten season at home against Iowa on March 21.
Illinois will play 20 games against teams that participated in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, including facing three of the eight teams that advanced to the Women's College World Series; the Illini will battle WCWS qualifiers Nebraska and Michigan in a pair of three-game series, while taking on NCAA runner-up Tennessee in Tampa, Fla.
The Illini will face seven teams that are ranked in both the NFCA and the ESPN.com preseason polls, including No. 1 Tennessee, along with five additional opponents that are receiving votes in either poll. They will face three teams which finished 2013 in the top 10 in the RPI, seven in the top 25, and 15 in the top 50.
The Orange and Blue will battle six 2013 regular-season conference champions, along with an additional four conference tournament champions. The Illini have an incredibly diverse set of opponents, taking on teams from 18 different conferences during tournament season before getting into Big Ten play.
Illinois opens the season on Feb. 7 at the Rosemont Rumble, an indoor tournament at The Dome at the Ballpark in Rosemont, Ill., which is the indoor facility for the Chicago Bandits professional fast-pitch team. The Illini will see 2013 Horizon League Co-Champions Illinois-Chicago and Loyola on the first night, then take on OVC Champion Eastern Illinois, IUPUI and MAC Tournament Champion Central Michigan.
The Orange and Blue then head south for the USF Tournament in Tampa, Fla., which features NCAA runner-up Tennessee and Big East Tournament Champion USF, along with Wright State, Pittsburgh and Binghamton.
The Illini make their way West over the next two weekends, participating in the UTA Hilton Invitational in Arlington, Texas, on Feb. 21-23, then heading to Southern California for the Long Beach Louisville Slugger Invitational on Feb. 28-March 2. While in Texas, the Illini will play a pair of games against UMKC, along with Texas Tech, 2013 MVC Champion Creighton and host-team UT Arlington. Out in Cali, the Orange and Blue will play Oregon State and Utah Valley in Long Beach, Nevada and Cal State Fullerton at CSUF's ballpark, and No. 21 UCLA in Longwood, Calif.
Illinois heads back to Florida for one more voyage into tropical weather with a trip to Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton on March 8-9. The Illini will play 2013 NCAA Tournament teams Virginia Tech and South Alabama, along with a pair of games against the host FAU Owls.
For the second-straight season, the Orange and Blue will conclude tournament season at home at Eichelberger Field, hosting the Fighting Illini Classic on March 14-16. The Illini will play a pair of games against Summit League Champion North Dakota State, followed by Saint Louis, Nebraska-Omaha and Western Michigan.
Big Ten play kicks off on March 21, when the Illini host Iowa in the first conference series of the season. The Big Ten season retains the format from 2013, with the Illini playing seven three-game series, with one game scheduled on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, along with one mid-week doubleheader. Illinois hosts full series against Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan, and a doubleheader against Northwestern. The Illini then play road series at Minnesota, Wisconsin, Purdue and Penn State. Illinois got a tough draw this season, taking on the top five teams from the 2013 standings, including road series at Minnesota and Wisconsin, who both played in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
The "Bragging Rights" matchup with Missouri returns this season, as the Illini plan to face the SEC powerhouse Tigers in a neutral-site doubleheader on March 25 in St. Charles, Mo. The Illini will also play midweek games at Illinois State (April 2) and vs. DePaul (April 16), before the close of the regular season.
The Big Ten Tournament moves to Evanston this year, as Northwestern will host the 12-team, single-elimination tournament on May 8-11. All 12 conference members will earn a bid to the tournament, seeded according to the regular-season standings, with the top four seeds receiving a first-round bye. The winner will receive the Big Ten's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
NCAA Regionals begin on May 16, and will be hosted by the top 16 national seeds. Super Regionals, a best-of-three series, will be held May 23-25, with the Women's College World Series returning to Oklahoma City on May 29 to June 4.