Illini Look To Keep Hot Streak Going in Sunshine State
Facing No. 1: Illinois will take on No. 1 Tennessee on Feb. 15, representing the second-straight season that the Illini will face the No. 1 team in the country and the 10th time in team history that the Illini will compete against the nation's top-ranked team according to the NFCA Coaches Poll. Illinois played No. 1 Alabama on Feb. 8, 2013, to open last season, and rode a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the third before eventually falling, 7-2. The Illini have four wins over top-10 teams in program history, most notably defeating No. 5 LSU, 5-3, on Feb. 12, 2005.
Against the Field: Illinois is 7-9 all-time against this weekend's tournament field, going 4-1 against Pittsburgh, but 3-5 against USF and 0-3 against Tennessee. The Illini will take on Binghamton and Wright State for the first time this weekend.
Sizing Up the Competition: This weekend's field features 2013 NCAA Runner-Up No. 1/2 Tennessee, NCAA Regional qualifier and Big East Tournament Champion USF, who came in second in the Big East in 2013, and Binghamton, who placed second in the America East in 2013. Tennessee will be the first ranked opponent the Illini take on this season, ranked No. 1 in the NFCA Poll and No. 2 by ESPN.com, while USF was ranked in both preseason polls but dropped out this week. Pittsburgh is the Illini's only opponent this weekend that did not finish in the top half of its conference standings last season, but the Panthers have since made the move from the Big East to the ACC for 2014.
Typical Tampa: The Fighting Illini are participating in a pre-conference tournament in the Tampa area for the third-straight season, and have played in the vicinity in six of the past seven seasons. Unlike in previous seasons, this weekend's tournament will be held in full at USF Softball Stadium. The Illini played a doubleheader at USF Softball Stadium on March 1, 2013, dropping a pair of one-run games to No. 19 Kentucky and USF, before completing tournament play in Clearwater.
ILLINOIS HAS TOUGH 2014 SLATE
After playing one of the most difficult schedules in the nation in 2013, the Fighting Illini have another tough task ahead this season.
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 WCWS (Tennessee, Michigan, Nebraska).
The Illini will face seven teams that are ranked in this week's NFCA and ESPN.com polls, including taking on No. 1/2 Tennessee this weekend. Illinois will play three-game series against No. 6/4 Michigan and No. 9/8 Nebraska, a neutral-site game against No. 12/13 UCLA, a neutral-site doubleheader against No. 14/18 Missouri, a neutral-site game against No. 18/19 South Alabama, and a three-game series at No. 22/24 Minnesota. Additionally, four of Illinois' opponents are receiving votes in at least one poll, including this weekend's opponent USF, who was ranked in both preseason polls but has since fallen to #28/26.
According the to the final RPI of 2013, the Illini will play three top-10 teams, seven in the top 25, and 15 in the top 50.
Throughout non-conference play, the Illini will face teams from 18 different leagues in addition to the Big Ten, playing the most against members of the Summit League (North Dakota State, Nebraska-Omaha, IUPUI). Eight of these opponents will be playing their first season in a new conference.
Of their 56 regular-season games, just 17 will be played at Eichelberger Field, while the remaining 39 will take place away from home.
The Illini have a very challenging Big Ten draw, taking on all five teams that finished ahead of them in the 2013 standings, including regular-season champion Michigan (H) and Big Ten Tournament champion Wisconsin (A).
ILLINI RECORD PERFECT OPENING WEEKEND
The Fighting Illini could not have had a better start to the 2014, as they swept through the competition at the Rosemont Rumble with a perfect 5-0 record. Illinois began the season with back-to-back 10-run victories over co-hosts and 2013 Horizon League Co-Champions Illinois-Chicago (11-1) and Loyola (12-2), then pulled off solid wins over 2013 OVC Champion Eastern Illinois (4-2), IUPUI (5-3) and 2013 MAC Tournament Champion and NCAA Regional qualifier Central Michigan (4-1).
The Illini were solid on all parts of the game, hitting .360 as a team, while registering a 1.91 ERA and a .988 fielding percentage. Nine Illini had at least two hits on the weekend, with seven starters hitting over. 300. Ruby Rivera (.538), Brittany Sanchez (.529) and Jenna Mychko (.500) all hit at least .500, and Nicole Evans led the Orange and Blue with a .933 slugging percentage over the five games.
The Illinois pitching staff limited its opponents to nine earned runs on 32 hits and just five walks over 33 innings. Freshman Brandi Needham had a fantastic debut weekend for the Illini, going 3-0 with a 0.79 ERA and just one walk allowed over 17.2 innings, picking up her first complete-game victory against Central Michigan. Junior Shelese Arnold had a solid weekend back in the circle for the Orange and Blue, earning a pair of wins and limiting her opponents to just four earned runs over 12.0 innings. A big key to the Illini's success was the pair's ability to limit opponents at the plate with runners on base, as they held the other team to just nine hits in 49 attempts (.184).
Conversely, the Illini offense took advantage of RBI situations, hitting .338 as a team with runners on base, led by Sanchez, who went 6-for-9 with runners on. The Illini leadoff batters also got the job done, reaching base in 15 of 32 innings (.469) to get things started for the Orange and Blue. Additionally, Illinois took advantage of clutch hitting to make things happen, tallying 20 two-out hits and 25 two-out RBI to hit .417 with two down at the Rosemont Rumble. In comparison, Illinois' opponents recorded just two 2-out RBI.
The Fighting Illini freshman class shined on opening weekend, as all four healthy first-years contributed in a big way at the Rosemont Rumble. Right fielder Nicole Evans registered a hit and scored in all five games at the indoor tournament, completing the weekend by hitting .400 with two doubles, two home runs, four RBI, eight runs scored and a team-best .933 slugging percentage. Additionally, she was perfect in the outfield, including making a run-saving outfield assist against UIC by robbing the batter of an RBI single to right by making the play to first.
Shortstop Ruby Rivera was unstoppable on her first weekend, hitting a team-high .538 at the Rosemont Rumble, including going 6-for-6 with a walk and a sacrifice bunt in her first eight career plate appearances. It was not until the fourth inning of her third game when the rookie was retired for the first time, on a ball that was ruled an out by the umpire after striking the ceiling of the dome. She finished the weekend with seven hits, a double, two walks, three runs, two RBI, and a sacrifice bunt, while registering perfect poise at shortstop, making 15 assists, nine putouts and turning two double plays. Following the first weekend of play, Rivera ranked second only to teammate Allie Bauch (21) in the Big Ten in assists.
Brandi Needham turned heads on opening weekend, going 3-0 in three appearances in the circle, registering a 0.79 ERA with just two runs and one walk over 17.2 innings. The Dripping Springs, Texas, native made her first career start against Loyola, where she allowed just one earned run on five hits and one walk over 5.0 solid innings to pick up her first win. Needham returned to the circle for her first relief appearance the following morning, tossing 5.2 shutout innings to close out the Illini's extra-innings victory over Eastern Illinois. She then tabbed her first career complete-game victory in the weekend finale against Central Michigan, holding the Chippewas scoreless through the first 6.2 innings, before finishing the day with six hits, one run and three strikeouts over 7.0 frames. After the first weekend of play, she is tied for first in the Big Ten in wins, second in innings pitched and walks allowed, and fourth in ERA.
Jade Vecvanags contributed for the Illini on both offense and defense, starting each game as the designated player and making two appearances in the circle. The Orange, Calif., native went 1-for-2 with a walk in her debut as the cleanup hitter against UIC, then pitched a perfect 1-2-3 sixth inning in relief against Loyola to seal up the Illini's second win of the day. She struggled in her first career start on the mound against IUPUI, allowing three runs over 2.1 innings, but picked her team up on offense by going 1-for-3 at the plate against the Jaguars.
After the first week of competition, the Fighting Illini are among the tops in the Big Ten in a majority of key statistical categories. As a team, the Illini offense leads the league in hits (49), RBI (35), doubles (10), triples (3), total bases (77), hit batsmen (6) and stolen bases (7), and ranks second in slugging percentage (.566), on base percentage (.460) and runs scored (36). The Illini pitching staff recorded the second-best earned run average (1.91) and the second-fewest walks (5), while ranking fourth in runs allowed (9). On defense, The Illini lead the league with four double plays turned and rank second in fielding percentage (.988) and stolen bases against (1).
Individually, several Fighting Illini rank in the top 10 in the league in various statistics, with members of the Orange and Blue holding the top spot in 10 different categories. Second baseman Allie Bauch, the Illini leadoff hitter, leads the Big Ten in plate appearances (21), at-bats (19) and assists (21), while ranking third in runs (6) and stolen bases (2). Senior Alex Booker drilled a pair of triples on opening day to lead the conference, while sophomore Kylie Johnson sits atop the standings with four stolen bases. Catcher Jenna Mychko leads the Big Ten after being hit by a pitch three times, and has the second-best on base percentage in the league (.667). Junior Brittany Sanchez was a key contributor on opening weekend, leading the conference with nine hits, while freshman Nicole Evans is second in the Big Ten in runs scored (8) and third in both home runs (2) and total bases (14).
Freshman Brandi Needham had a fantastic debut weekend in the circle for the Illini, sitting atop the conference with three wins as well as no triples or home runs allowed. She pitched the second-most innings, and tied for second with just one walk allowed. Her 0.79 ERA ranks fourth in the Big Ten.
MIDDLE INFIELD SETS RECORD AGAINST EIU
When the Fighting Illini took on Eastern Illinois on Feb. 8, the Orange and Blue pitching staff kept the ball in the infield for nearly the entire game, as the Panthers registered just one flyout to the outfield. The Illini registered a program-record 20 assists in the eight-inning game, surpassing the previous record of 19 assists set on Feb. 12, 2006, against Tulsa and matched on May 4, 2008, against Iowa. Illini second baseman Allie Bauch accounted for nearly half the team's assists, tying the school record with nine in the game, to go along with three putouts and participating in a key double play. Bauch tied the record that was set by Illini Assistant Coach and second baseman Katie O'Connell on March 24, 2001, against Wisconsin, and was matched last season by teammate Katie Repole on Feb. 15, 2013, at third base against Houston.
COMING THROUGH WITH TWO
A big key to the Illini's success at the Rosemont Rumble was the offense's ability to come through in the clutch with key two-out hitting. The Fighting Illini hit .417 with two outs, and drove in a total of 25 two-out RBI, while limiting their opponents to just .244 and two runs with two outs. Five different Illini drove in at least four two-out RBI over the weekend, led by Alex Booker and Remeny Perez with six apiece. The Illini were successful at advancing runners 43-of-90 times (.478), and hit .323 (20-for-62) with runners in scoring position. All five of Illinois' runs against IUPUI were scored with two outs, with junior Brittany Sanchez driving in three on a pair of two-out RBI singles to lead the Illini back from down 3-2 to defeat the Jaguars, 5-3.
Additionally, the Illini were successful in getting things started, as Orange and Blue leadoff batters reached base in 15 of 32 innings (.469). Allie Bauch got on base four times at the top of the order, and Sanchez went 3-for-5 when starting an inning. Nicole Evans was a perfect 2-for-2 at the beginning of a frame, and Jenna Mychko and Jade Vecvanags both reached as the leadoff batter twice in four chances.
Alex Booker NAMED PRESEASON ALL-BIG TEN
Senior left fielder Alex Booker was named to the Preseason All-Big Ten Second Team by CollegeSportsMadness.com, after earning All-Big Ten Second Team and Big Ten All-Defensive Team honors in 2013.
Booker had a fantastic season for the Illini on both offense and defense in 2013, leading the Orange and Blue at the plate with a .352 batting average and registering a .427 on base percentage. The speed demon stole 20 bases on just 21 attempts, becoming the third Illini in school history to tab 20 swipes in a single season, while tying for second with a .952 efficiency. The Gurnee, Ill., native put together a team-best 51 hits, 33 runs, 13 RBI, five doubles, a triple and 18 walks, while recording three sacrifice bunts in 2013.
She was also outstanding in left field, recording the most fielding chances in the Big Ten without making an error, tallying 87 putouts and seven outfield assists.