Illini Off to Arlington for UTA Hilton Invitational
Against the Field: This weekend's competition is fairly new to the Illini, as Illinois has played a total of just four games against the four teams that it will see this weekend. The Illini are 1-2 against Texas Tech, dropping a pair of games in 2007, but winning the most recent matchup, 8-2, on Feb. 27, 2009, at the Cox Communication Invitational in Gainesville, Fla. Illinois defeated UT Arlington, 5-0, at the Maverick Classic on opening night in 2003 in the pair's only meeting. The Orange and Blue will take on Creighton and UMKC for the first time this weekend.
Sizing Up the Competition: This weekend's field features three teams that are playing in a new conference this season. Creighton joins the Big East after claiming the 2013 MVC title, going 29-18 on the year and 15-7 in conference play.UMKC moves from the Summit League to the WAC this season, while UT Arlington is in its first season in the Sun Belt, having previously played in the WAC. Texas Tech is Illinois' lone opponent to remain in its conference, having placed sixth in the Big 12 last season.
The Blue Jays kicked off 2014 at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz., where they faced a tough slate including a pair of ranked teams. Creighton held No. 7 Arizona State to just three runs on five hits, but fell 3-0, then closed out the weekend with a 6-4 upset of No. 24 California. The Roos are 5-5 on the year, picking up wins over Alabama State, Texas Southern, Akron and Butler (2). The Red Raiders met the Roos at the Lion Classic on opening weekend, and are 6-4 with wins against UMKC, Nicholls State, Texas Southern, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Northern Colorado. UTA began the season in Utah, defeating Weber State, BYU and Utah Valley, then hosted the UTA Maverick Invitational, picking up wins over South Dakota State and Central Michigan (2).
Let's Talk Texas: The Illini will play in Arlington, Texas, for just the second time in team history, after participating in the Maverick Classic to kick off the 2003 season. Illinois defeated Louisiana-Monroe, 10-3, and UTA, 5-0, at nearby Jennifer McFalls Complex in Grand Prairie, after lighting issues moved the game off campus, then played their first-ever game at Allan Saxe Field the following day, defeating New Mexico State, 10-2.
The Illini are no strangers to playing in Texas, however, as they have participated in 11 tournaments in six different cities over the past 14 seasons, including the 2004 NCAA Regional, which was hosted by Baylor in Waco, Texas.
Illinois' roster also features three players who are very familiar with the state of Texas, as freshman Brandi Needham hails from Dripping Spring, Texas, Katie Repole is from Bulverde, Texas, and Jami Schkade grew up in Albany, Texas.
ILLINOIS RECORDS BEST SEASON START EVER
The Fighting Illini opened the 2014 season on an eight-game winning streak, marking the best start to a season in program history. The 8-0 debut eclipsed the previous record of six wins to begin a season, which the Orange and Blue set in 2001, their first season with a scholarship team, then matched in 2003 and again in 2010.
The Orange and Blue won 11 of their final 12 regular-season games in 2013, putting together a 19-1 record in regular-season games from April 20, 2013 to Feb. 15, 2014.
It took facing the No. 1 team in the country, undefeated Tennessee, the 2013 NCAA Runner-Up, for Illinois to finally lose a game. The Illini contained the Lady Vols' potent offense through the first six innings, but a two-out rally in the top of the seventh pushed the game out of reach, as the Illini would fall 10-0. Illinois tallied five hits against two-time USA Softball National Player of the Year finalist Ellen Renfroe, who had allowed just five total hits over her previous three starts combined, but stranded them all on base.
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:
The Fighting Illini defense has done a fantastic job at keeping base runners from scoring, most effectively by turning double plays. Through the first two weeks of the season, the Illini have already turned seven double plays, which is nearly double the next team in the Big Ten.
First baseman Remeny Perez has participated in all seven double plays, while middle infielders Allie Bauch and Ruby Rivera have each had a hand in four of them. No other Big Ten player has turned more than three double plays. Brittany Sanchez turned a key double play from center field against IUPUI, throwing behind the runner at first after a flyout, and Katie Repole turned an inning-ending double play against No. 1 Tennessee to strand a leadoff double.
At this point in the season, the Illini are averaging 0.70 double plays per game. Illinois' all-time record is 0.49 per game, set back in 2006, when the Illini ranked fourth in the nation by turning a program-best 27 double plays in 55 games.
BEST OF THE BIG TEN
After two weeks of competition, the Fighting Illini rank among the top of the conference in statistical categories across the board. As a team, the Illini lead the league in triples (3), batters hit by pitch (10), double plays turned (7) and fewest stolen bases allowed (3). At the plate, the Illini rank second in RBIs, doubles and sacrifice bunts, and are third in batting average, slugging percentage, runs scored, hits, total bases and stolen bases. In the circle, the Illini pitching staff is second in (fewest) runs allowed and walks allowed, and is third in both ERA and earned runs allowed. In the field, the Illini rank in the top three in every major category, holding the second-best fielding percentage and caught stealing percentage, and ranking third in runners caught stealing and fewest errors committed.
Individually, the Illini hold the top spot in several defensive categories, while numerous players rank in the top 10 at the plate. Second baseman and leadoff batter Allie Bauch leads the conference with 32 assists, while coming in second only to teammate Remeny Perez with four double plays turned. She also leads the conference in total plate appearances and is tied for second in stolen bases. In addition to leading the league in DP, Perez its tops in the conference in chances and putouts, and ranks in the top 10 in several offensive categories, including slugging percentage, RBIs, doubles, home runs and total bases. Shortstop Ruby Rivera, is tied with Bauch for second with four double plays turned, is second only to Bauch in assists, and is tied for second in sacrifice bunts. Katie Repole rounds out the Illini infield, ranking sixth in assists.
Catcher Jenna Mychko leads the Big Ten by being hit by a pitch four times, and is one of just 10 players to have had at least 40 fielding chances and still hold a 1.000 fielding percentage. She is tied for second with three runners caught stealing and has helped the Illini rank second in caught stealing percentage while leading in fewest stolen bases against, as runners are just 3-for-6 against her. Additionally, she ranks fourth in the conference in on base percentage (.586) and ninth in batting average (.429).
Alex Booker and Kylie Johnson are both tied for sixth with four stolen bases, while Booker also ranks second in triples and ninth in RBIs. Freshman Nicole Evans is in the top 10 in home runs and runs scored, while fellow-outfielder Brittany Sanchez is among the league leaders in hits, triples and sacrifice bunts.
In the circle, freshman Brandi Needham has been lights out, tying for best in the Big Ten in wins, along with being one of just three conference pitchers who has yet to allow a triple or a home run on the year. Her 1.02 ERA ranks third in the conference, along with her 34.1 innings pitched and five starts. She is fifth in both runs (6) and earned runs (5) allowed and sixth in walks allowed (5). Fellow hurler Shelese Arnold is tied for seventh in wins (3), eighth in starts (4) and 10th in innings (24.0), while Jade Vecvanags is ninth in games finished (2).
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 has been the offense's ability to come through in the clutch with key two-out hitting. The Fighting Illini hit .417 with two outs at the Rosemont Rumble, and drove in a total of 25 two-out RBI, while limiting their opponents to just .244 and two runs with two outs.
On the season, Illinois is hitting .325 (27-83) with two outs, and leads its opponents 29-12 in two-out RBI. Alex Booker is tops on the team with eight two-out RBI, followed by Remeny Perez with six, and Allie Bauch and Brittany Sanchez each have five. Sanchez's have come at some of the biggest moments, as she drove in three runs on a pair of two-out RBI singles to lead the Illini back from down 3-2 to defeat the Jaguars, 5-3, and came through with the game-tying RBI in the sixth inning against USF.
MOVING `EM UP
Illinois has been very effective with runners on base, hitting .357 (50-140) with runners on and .381 (40-105) with runners in scoring position. Illini batters have been successful at advancing runners on base in 79-of-158 opportunities (.500), and have come up with RBIs with runners on third and less than two outs 14-of-28 times (.500). Illinois batters have been extremely effective with the bases loaded, hitting .435 (27-62), including a grand slam by Remeny Perez.
Individually, every Illini who has come to bat with runners on base more than five times is hitting at least .250 in the situation, led by Perez (7-for-12) and Brittany Sanchez (8-for-14). Perez is hitting .667 (6-for-9) with runners in scoring position, and Sanchez is 7-for-12 (.583). Alex Booker and Ruby Rivera are both hitting .429 (6-for-14) with runners in scoring position.
Conversely, the Illini pitching staff has limited its opponents to hitting just .271 (29-107) with runners on base and .281 (16-57) with runners in scoring position, stranding 55-of-78 base runners (70.5%).
Illinois has done a fantastic job getting innings started, as leadoff batters have reached base in 27-of-62 innings (.435), while the Illini's opponents have been effective just 31.3 percent of the time (20-for-64). Illini leadoff batter Allie Bauch has reached base six times in 18 attempts (.333), including three times as the first batter of the game, while Jenna Mychko and Brittany Sanchez are both 5-for-9 (.556) when kicking off an inning.
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.
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.
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.