Illini Adjusting To Life Without Seven Veterans

Elene Planinsek
Elene Planinsek

March 16, 2005

by Katie Bradley, UI Sports Information

After seven seniors graduated from last year's squad, it can be easy to think that the Fighting Illini softball team is going through a rebuilding year...just don't tell that to this year's seniors.

"I don't think it's necessarily a rebuilding year. Yes, we have people in different positions, but there are quite a few of us who have been here a long time. So it's not like it's a new game to us," comments senior catcher Julie Balicki.

Balicki, along with outfielders LeeAnn Butcher and Elene Planinsek, round out Illinois' second graduating senior class.

Coming into this year the Illini have a host of new faces. Junior Jenna Hall is the only recognizable player in the infield from last year, while sophomore Molly Lawhead takes over for graduated senior Erin Montgomery in right field. So far dominating in the circle with the lowest ERA (3.31) is sophomore Mary Miller, with freshman hurler Claire DeVreese right behind, allowing a 3.41 average with most innings pitched (41).

There is no denying Illinois' youth, but the Illini still have a solid backbone in players such as Butcher, Planinsek and Balicki, in addition to three year starters Rachelle Coriddi and Jenna Hall.

All three seniors fill a leadership role on the team. Each has something to say about the other,

Balicki described Butcher as "more of a silent leader until she gets fired up and then we all respect what she says because she goes out and does it; she leads by action."

Planinsek described Balicki's role as the "mom" figure; "she makes sure everything is in line and rallies the troops."

Planinsek's roommate for four years, Butcher, described her as someone who "leads the team with her energy and enthusiasm that she brings everyday; she makes the game fun."

"Just because we are young doesn't mean we are not going to be good. It just means there is always more teaching to be done," adds Planinsek, who fittingly is squeezing student teaching responsibilities in addition to the hectic softball schedule.

The team's leadership has already been apparent early this season. Butcher in centerfield was communicating to Lawhead to shade more to right-center on a batter who couldn't seem to catch up to Devrees' fastball. Balicki, behind the plate, is shouting out the situation and the number of outs to her two freshman middle infielders, while Planinsek is in the dugout pumping up the team by starting up another original cheer.

Even as talk so far has centered on Illinois' youth, the biggest difference on the field early this season has been the Illinois bats. While it was the Orange and Blue's spectacular defense that won a number of games for the team in 2004, it has been the torrid hitting of this year's squad that has gotten the job done and separated this year's Illini from last. The current team has three players batting above .350, with Butcher leading the way at a whopping .400. Jenna Hall and freshman Shanna Diller led the team with 14 RBIs apiece through the first 13 games--an average of more than one per game for each of them. Overall, the Illini have only been outhit in four games.

The young Illini seem to be making the best of its situation.

"We are used to the low expectations. Like our team, our program is young. We have been trying to prove ourselves from day one," comments Planinsek.

Over the long haul, slowly, but surely, the Illini have gained the respect of teams and the conference. In just four seasons the Fighting Illini have played their way to the NCAA Regionals twice with their farthest run in post-season play coming last year, finishing in the Sweet 16 losing to LSU in the Regional championship game. In addition, the Illini finished second in both the conferemce play and in the Big Ten Tournament.

With this team being arguably the most talented squad Illinois has had in its four years of the program's existence, the players are not backing down; they refuse to lower their goals despite losing a hefty graduating class and having to rely upon a bunch of feisty freshmen in 2005.