Softball Sets Out for Showdown in SoCal
Against the Field: The Fighting Illini have faced this weekend's competition a total of just five times over the past 14 seasons. The Orange and Blue defeated then-No. 6 UCLA, Cal State Fullerton, and Nevada in their only contest against each team, but is 0-2 against Oregon State, most recently seeing the Beavers at the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic last season. Illinois faces Utah Valley for the first time on Friday.
Sizing Up the Competition: The Illini have their work cut out for them on Sunday, as they face undefeated No. 5 UCLA, who took down three ranked teams this past weekend. The Bruins went captured 40 wins in 2013 and qualified for NCAA Regionals. UCLA junior Ally Carda was named National Player of the Week by both USA Softball and the NFCA this past week, after hitting .429 at the plate and going 4-0 in the circle.
Saturday's opponent Cal State Fullerton jumped into the polls this week, receiving votes in both sets of rankings, after topping defending national champion then-No. 2 Oklahoma, 3-1, on opening day, and then-No. 15 Baylor, 6-1, on Feb. 21. Of their six losses, four came to nationally-ranked teams, in Tennessee, LSU, Notre Dame and California.
Prior to facing CSUF, the Illini will take on Nevada, who opens the season 10-5. Illinois begins the tournament against Oregon State and Utah Valley on the campus of Long Beach State on Friday. OSU finished 2013 ranked 40th in the RPI and was in the NFCA top 25 for much of the season, but is off to a 5-11 start this year. Despite the sub-par record, the seven of the Beavers' 11 losses came to teams that appear in this weekend poll. Utah Valley finished third in the PCSC last season, but has struggled so far in 2014, opening the year 0-10.
All Over the Map: The Louisville Slugger Invitational is co-hosted by Long Beach State and Cal State Fullerton, and will take place in three different locations. Illinois will play at the 49er Softball Complex on the campus of Long Beach State on Friday, at Anderson Family Field at Cal State Fullerton on Saturday, and will face No. 5 UCLA at Mayfair Park in Longwood, Calif., on Sunday.
Cali Girls: This weekend will be a homecoming for three student-athletes on the Illini roster, as Remeny Perez (Tustin), Jade Vecvanags (Orange) and Ruby Rivera (Glendale) are all from Southern California.
BOOKER IS FIRST ILLINI TO HIT FOR THE CYCLE
On Sunday, Feb. 23, senior Alex Booker made history by becoming the first-ever Illini to hit for the cycle, doing so in the Illini's 9-1 victory over Creighton. It began with an RBI double in the second inning. She then laid down a bunt single to load the bases in the third. She drilled a two-out triple in the top of the fifth, then crushed a two-run homer in the seventh to become just the second player in Big Ten history ever to hit for the cycle. Her 10 total bases in the game lead the Big Ten this season, and just two Illini have ever registered more in a game, each recording 11 on a single, a double and two home runs (Meredith Hackett vs. UTSA, 2/12/11 & Angelena Mexicano vs. Sacramento State, 3/18/07).
BOOKER NAMED BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Senior Alex Booker was named Big Ten Player of the Week on Feb. 24 after her head-turning performance at the UTA Hilton Invitational. The Gurnee, Ill., native made history on Feb. 23, by becoming the first Illini and just the second Big Ten player ever to hit for the cycle, leading the Illini to a 9-1 victory over Creighton. Booker hit safely in all four games at the tournament, going 3-for-4 with a double and a stolen base against UMKC, then tallying a single, a double, a triple and a home run to go along with three RBI and two runs against Creighton on Sunday. She began the weekend with a single, a stolen base and an RBI against Texas Tech, and finished the tournament by hitting a two-RBI double to drive in the game-winning run against UT Arlington. Booker tabbed a .529 batting average on the week, slugging 1.000.
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, ranked #4 at the end of April, 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 three weeks of the season, the Illini have already turned 11 double plays, which is five more than the next Big Ten team.
First baseman Remeny Perez has participated in eight, second baseman Allie Bauch has had her hand in seven, and Ruby Rivera has turned five, which represent the top three in the Big Ten. Brittany Sanchez and Katie Repole have each turned two DPs, as 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 0.79 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 three 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 doubles (25), triples (4), total bases (193), fewest walks allowed (24), fewest home runs allowed (3), assists (146) and double plays turned (11). The Illini offense ranks second in slugging percentage, home runs, hit batsmen and stolen bases, third in batting average, hits, and runs, and fourth in on base percentage. The pitching staff ranks third in ERA, while the defense ranks second in fielding percentage and unearned runs allowed, third in runners caught stealing, and fourth in fewest errors and stolen bases against.
Individually, the Illini hold the top spot in five different categories, while numerous players rank in the top 10. Second baseman and leadoff batter Allie Bauch leads the conference with 40 assists, while coming in second only to teammate Remeny Perez with seven double plays turned. She also ranks second in plate appearances and stolen bases, third in walks, and fourth in runs. In addition to leading the league in DP, Perez is tops in the conference in chances and putouts, and ranks in the top 10 in several offensive categories, including slugging percentage, RBIs, doubles and home runs. Shortstop Ruby Rivera sits behind only her teammates in double plays (5) and assists (38), and is third in doubles. Katie Repole rounds out the Illini infield, ranking fifth in assists.
Catcher Jenna Mychko has had the seventh-most fielding chances (57) to still hold a 1.000 fielding percentage. She is tied for fourth with three runners caught stealing and third with three HBP.
Alex Booker leads the league in triples (3), is second in total bases (34) and stolen bases (7), and in the top 10 in seven additional categories. Freshman Nicole Evans is in the top 10 in home runs, Brittany Sanchez is among the league leaders in triples and at-bats, and fellow outfielder Kylie Johnson is tied for eighth with four stolen bases. Designated player Jade Vecvanags is tied for ninth with three doubles.
In the circle, freshman Brandi Needham has been lights out, as she is one of just two conference players to have pitched at least 15 innings without allowing a triple or a home run (Sara Moulton, Minnesota). She ranks second in the lead in innings pitched, appearances, starts, and walks allowed, is third in wins, and in the top 10 in six additional categories, including ERA, strikeouts and opponent batting average. Junior Shelese Arnold is in the top 10 in opponent batting average, wins, starts and appearances.
The Fighting Illini have also set some single-game highs this season. As a team, the Orange and Blue collected the most hits in a game of any Big Ten squad with 17 against Binghamton, the most total bases (28) against Creighton, and the most assists (20) in the eight-inning game against EIU. The Illini are tied for the league lead in seven additional categories, including doubles, triples, home runs, putouts and double plays. Individually, Allie Bauch leads the conference with a school-record-tying nine assists against EIU, Booker is tops with 10 total bases when she hit for the cycle against Creighton, and Mychko, Perez, Repole, Rivera, Sanchez and Vecvanags all tied for the conference lead in at least one category.
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 .320 (41-128) with two outs, and leads its opponents 33-13 in two-out RBI. Alex Booker is tops on the team with nine 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 .345 (71-206) with runners on and .340 (52-153) with runners in scoring position. Illini batters have been successful at advancing runners on base in 109-of-225 opportunities (.484), and have come up with RBIs with runners on third and less than two outs 17-of-36 times (.472). Illinois batters have been extremely effective with the bases loaded, hitting .400 (8-20), including a grand slam by Remeny Perez.
Individually, every Illini who has come to bat with runners on base more than three times is hitting at least .250 in the situation, led by Allie Bauch (9-20, .450), Alex Booker (13-30, .433), and Brittany Sanchez (8-21, .381). Booker is hitting a team-best .450 (9-20) with runners in scoring position, following by Bauch (6-14, .429) and Sanchez (7-17, .412).
Conversely, the Illini pitching staff has limited its opponents to hitting just .240 (35-146) with runners on base and .221 (17-77) with runners in scoring position, including 1-for-20 at the UTA Hilton Invite, stranding 73-of-103 base runners (70.8%).
Illinois has done a fantastic job getting innings started, as leadoff batters have reached base in 37-of-90 innings (.411), while the Illini's opponents have been effective just 29.3 percent of the time (27-for-92). Illini leadoff batter Allie Bauch has reached base nine times in 24 attempts (.375), including five times as the first batter of the game, while five Illini are .400 or better in the situation, including 2-for-2 by Ruby Rivera.
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.