Illinois Hosts Second-Annual Fighting Illini Classic this Weekend
Against the Field: The Fighting Illini are 4-2 all-time against this weekend's tournament field. Illinois defeated North Dakota State and Saint Louis in 2013 in its first meeting with each team, and is 2-2 all-time against Western Michigan, having won their 2013 matchup, 6-2.
Sizing Up the Competition: North Dakota State ran through the Summit League in 2013, capturing the regular-season title with a 17-1 record in conference play, but missed earning the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by falling to Fort Wayne in the tournament championship. The Bison have a pair of wins this season over teams in this week's rankings, defeating Notre Dame, 4-1, on opening weekend, and topping then-No. 22 Stanford, 4-0, last Friday in Palo Alto.
Omaha finished right behind the Bison in second in the Summit League with a 14-3 campaign in their first season in the conference.
Western Michigan has struggled of late, going 6-6 to start the year, but has since gone 1-10, and enters this weekend on an eight-game losing streak. The Broncos have faced some tough competition, including ranked Stanford and USF squads.
Saint Louis had a solid start to 2014, opening the year with an 8-3 record, but struggled at the TSU Tiger Invitational last weekend, dropping four straight before defeating North Carolina A&T, 17-1, to finish third at the tournament.
Tournament Hosts: The Orange and Blue are hosting a pre-conference tournament for the second straight season, after claiming the 2013 Fighting Illini Invitational title with wins over Saint Louis, Loyola and Western Michigan. The invite has changed its format this season, with a total of five teams participating, who each will play 4-5 games. Each team will face every other team at least once, with the exception of Omaha and North Dakota State, as they are both members of the Summit League and will square off next month in conference play.
PERKINS' TWO-RUN BLAST LIFTS ILLINI IN EXTRAS
On March 9, Brandi Needham was fantastic in the circle, limiting Hofstra to just four hits and no runs over seven innings, but despite having a runner on in every inning, the Illini struggled to come up with an RBI, as the pair headed to extra innings in a scoreless tie. However, with two outs in the top of the eighth, Jess Perkins came through big time with a monster two-run blast to left to put Illinois ahead 2-0. Needham then completed the eight-inning shutout with a 1-2-3 bottom of the eighth, with the help of a heads-up play by Ruby Rivera to get the tie-break runner heading to third for the first out, to seal the deal for the Illini and pick up her second career shutout.
BOOKER TABS SECOND CYCLE IN BIG TEN HISTORY
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:
Illinois has 21 games scheduled 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 (Tennessee, Michigan, Nebraska).
The Illini have games scheduled against eight teams that are ranked in this week's NFCA poll, including taking on then-No. 1 Tennessee on Feb. 15. Illinois dropped a pair of close games to then-No. 14 South Alabama on Mar. 8-9 and were scheduled to play then-No. 3 UCLA on Mar. 2 but the game was rained out. The Illini have upcoming three-game series against No. 8/7 Michigan, No. 17/14 Nebraska and at No. 18/21 Minnesota, along with doubleheaders against No. 16/18 Missouri and No. 25/RV Northwestern. Additionally, three of Illinois' opponents are receiving votes: DePaul, USF, and Hofstra.
The Fighting Illini faced their first ranked opponent of the year on Feb. 15, taking on No. 1/2 Tennessee at the USF Tournament. Illinois limited the Lady Vols to one run on four hits through five innings, but a two-out rally in the top of the seventh solidified a 10-0 victory for top-ranked UT. The following afternoon, Illinois faced USF, who had been ranked in the preseason poll but dropped to #28/26 that week, and rode a 1-1 tie into the final inning, but a two-out RBI single in the bottom of the seventh drove in an unearned run and led the Bulls past the Illini, 2-1. Illinois' game against then-No. 5 UCLA was rained out on Mar. 2, but the Illini played three games against top teams the following weekend. Illinois scored in each of the first three innings against No. 14 South Alabama in game one, but dropped the contest, 5-3. The Illini staged a comeback in their second meeting, tying the score at 2-2 with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, but fell 5-2 in extras. However, Illinois completed the weekend with a 2-0 victory over RV Hofstra in eight innings, thanks to a complete-game shutout from Brandi Needham and a two-run homer by Jess Perkins in the eighth.
According to the final RPI of 2013, the Illini are slated to play three top-10 teams, eight in the top 25, and 15 in the top 50.
Throughout non-conference play, the Illini will face teams from 19 different leagues in addition to the Big Ten, playing the most against members of the Summit League (North Dakota State, Omaha, IUPUI). Eight of these opponents will be playing their first season in a new conference.
The Illini will take on seven teams that won their conference in 2013, along with five that won their conference tournaments. So far, the Illini are 5-0 against 2013 regular-season conference champions (W-UIC-Horizon, W-Loyola-Horizon, W-EIU-OVC, W-Creighton-MVC, W-Hofstra-CAA) and 2-1 against tournament champs (W-Central Michigan-MAC, L-USF-Big East, W-Hofstra-CAA).
Of their 56 regular-season games, just 17 will be played at Eichelberger Field, while the remaining 39 will take place away from home. Illinois opens the home slate this weekend, playing in five of the 12 games scheduled for the second-annual Fighting Illini Classic.
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).
The Fighting Illini defense has done a fantastic job at keeping base runners from scoring, most effectively by turning double plays. Throughout nonconference play the Illini have already turned 12 double plays, which is three more than the next Big Ten team.
The Illini are averaging 0.67 double plays per game, which ranks fifth in the nation. 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.
First baseman Remeny Perez has participated in a league-leading nine, second baseman Allie Bauch has had her hand in eight, and Ruby Rivera has turned six. 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.
BEST OF THE BEST
The NCAA released the national statistical rankings this week for the first time this season, and the Fighting Illini rank in the top 80 in every team category. Illinois' 12 doubles plays (0.67/g) rank fifth in the nation, and its .972 fielding percentage is 39th. The Illini rank 24th in doubles per game and 48th in ERA.
Individually, Alex Booker ranks seventh in the nation with three triples, and had the Illini's game with UCSB not be rained out in the third inning, she would be second to just one player in the nation. Ruby Rivera ranks ninth in the NCAA with 0.33 doubles per game, while Brandi Needham is 21st in walks allowed per seven innings (0.86). Remeny Perez is 33rd in hit by pitch (0.33), while individuals rank in the top 100 in eight additional categories.
The Illini are among the top in the Big Ten in several categories as well. As a team, the Orange and Blue lead the conference in double plays turned, along with fewest walks and unearned runs allowed, while ranking in the top three in several major categories, including batting average, slugging percentage, runs allowed and assists. Needham leads the conference in triples allowed (0) and is third in ERA and walks allowed. Booker leads the league in triples, is fourth in batting average (.422), and in the top 10 in six additioanl categories. Perez leads the league in double plays turned (9), Bauch is just behind her with eight, and Rivera is tied for fourth with six.
The Illini have also set some Big Ten single-game highs, including leading all teams with 17 hits against Binghamton, 28 total bases against Creighton, and 20 assists against Eastern Illinois. Booker's 10 total bases against Creighton, when she hit for the cycle, is also the best 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 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 .322 with two outs, and leads its opponents 38-23 in two-out RBI. Alex Booker is tops on the team with nine two-out RBI, followed by Remeny Perez with seven, Brittany Sanchez with six, and Allie Bauch with 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. Additionally, Kylie Johnson picked up a huge two-out RBI against No. 14 South Alabama, driving in the tying run on an RBI single in the bottom of the seventh to send the game into extra innings.
MOVING `EM UP
Illinois has been very effective with runners on base, hitting .323 with runners on and .324 with runners in scoring position. Illini batters have been successful at advancing runners on base in 46.8 percent of the time, and have come up with RBIs with runners on third and less than two outs 50 percent of the time. Illinois batters have been extremely effective with the bases loaded, hitting .381, 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 Alex Booker (16-34, .471), Allie Bauch (9-25, 3.60, .433), and Kylie Johnson (3-7, .429). Booker is hitting a team-best .429 (9-21) with runners in scoring position, following by Bauch (6-15, .400) and Sanchez (8-20, .400).
Conversely, the Illini pitching staff has limited its opponents to hitting just .271 with runners on base and .259 with runners in scoring position, including 1-for-20 at the UTA Hilton Invite, stranding 102-of-150 base runners (68%).
Illinois has done a fantastic job getting innings started, as leadoff batters have reached base in 42-of-118 innings (.356), while the Illini's opponents have been effective just 29.4 percent of the time (35-for-119). Illini leadoff batter Allie Bauch has reached base nine times in 32 attempts (.281), including five times as the first batter of the game, while nine Illini are .333 or better in the situation, including 4-for-6 by Ruby Rivera and 8-for-19 for Brittany Sanchez.
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.