Illinois opens season Friday
Jan. 31, 2005
Urbana, Ill. - The first graduating class in Illinois history capped the Illini's most successful season by placing second in the NCAA Regional in Waco, Texas, last May. The performance lifted Illinois to its first post-season national ranking -17th - and helped affix Illinois on the national map of women's softball.
With Illinois graduating nine seniors, including its two starting pitchers, three-quarters of the starting infield, and four-year starters at catcher and right field, the Illini open the 2005 season with some fresh faces and talk of raising the bar on expectations. To symbolize the transition, it is fitting that the new season begins at the same place that the 2004 campaign ended - at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. The Illini open the year on Friday, participating in the three-day, four-team Getterman Classic.
While it is true that several of last year's starters are gone, Illini Head Coach Terri Sullivan is quick to point out that many of those players who received national accolades do return, highlighted by Jenna Hall, a two-time First Team All-Big Ten selection and senior outfielder LeeAnn Butcher, an all-conference selection as well. The national coaches believe the Illini will be in the hunt again this year, ranking Illinois 22nd in the USA Today/NFCA poll and 25th in the USA Softball/ESPN.com poll.
Balance is the key to Illinois' offensive attack. Rachelle Coriddi, who moves from center field to her natural position of shortstop, and LeeAnn Butcher, who could prove to be one of the top slap hitters in the Midwest, give the Illini speed at the top of the order. Meanwhile Hall, who hails a .473 career slugging percentage, and freshman third baseman Shanna Diller will anchor a very strong heart of the order.
The biggest challenge will be replacing All-Midwest hurler Amanda Fortune and Sherri Taylor, two stalwarts on the mound for the past four years. To do that, Sullivan will call on junior Jackelyn Diekemper, who hails a 7-0 career record, and sophomore Mary Miller to complement freshman Claire DeVreese, whom the coach calls the hardest thrower to play for Illinois.
Senior catcher Julie Balicki, the winner of the Illini's Coaches Award last year who sports a .317 lifetime batting average, captains the team behind the plate. Veterans Coriddi and Hall will be joined by Diller, who was one of the most consistent hitters during the fall season, and slick-fielding freshman second baseman Angelena Mexicano in another impressive infield.
Butcher, who hit .338 during the 2004 season, moves from left to center field. A number of players including senior Elene Planinsek, sophomores Molly Lawhead and Kisten Martin, and freshmen Makenzie Smith and Sarah Bryers, all could see time in the outfield depending on the opponent. Diekemper and a host of Illini will be given an opportunity to start at designated player.
Terri Sullivan has said that "To be the best you should have to play the best" and that starts this weekend. Tournament favorite Baylor, who starts the year 17th nationally, returns seven starters, including pitchers Carrie Leerberg and Cristin Vitek, whom Illini fans saw toss an 18-inning shutout with 26 strikeouts in the NCAA Regional last year vs. North Carolina.
Illinois played the Bears three times last year, including twice in the regional. Baylor defeated the Illini, 2-1, in the semifinals of the Speedline Invitational in March despite a home run from Hall, then used a four-hitter from Vitek to defeat the Illini 5-0 at the Regional. Illinois battled back with victories over Seton Hall and Houston to gain another crack at Baylor later in the tournament. This time the Illini eliminated the Bears, 4-0 as Hall again went deep.
Louisiana-Monroe, the school where new Illini assistant Molly Freeman was on staff last year, and Centenary, which the Illini defeated 13-0 at the season-opening tournament at LSU last year and who gave Arizona a run for their money at Regional, round out the field. The tournament is a double-round robin format.