Illinois prepares for final Big Ten tune-up

Angelena Mexicano has started every game for Illinois at second base.
Angelena Mexicano has started every game for Illinois at second base.

March 23, 2005

Urbana, Ill. - The first phase of the 2005 softball season comes to a close this weekend for Illinois as the Illini play their final games prior to the start of Big Ten play April 1. The up and down season has had its bright spots, but for a team with a lot of new faces in the line-up, the best should be yet to come. The Illini compete in their sixth and final in-season tournament March 24-26 at Stanford University.

Illinois (13-8) has had a winning record in four tournaments and a 3-3 mark in the other, but have yet to break through and sweep a weekend. Two of the biggest wins of their year came over then #5 LSU (5-3) in Las Vegas and a 16-6 whitewash of traditional power South Florida in Tampa.

"One of our goals is to establish ourselves and prove we can compete with anyone in the country," said Illinois Head Coach Terri Sullivan. "We have been knocking at the door and have had some great performances in all three phases of the game - hitting, fielding, and pitching. We need to focus on doing that consistently."

At the heart of Illinois' success offensively has been freshman Shanna Diller, whose home run vs. LSU proved to be the difference, and junior Jenna Hall, who has three home runs and 19 RBI. Diller, who leads the club in those departments (4 HR, 22 RB I), was also 2-for-3 with a double, three RBI, and runs scored vs. LSU. She has also combined with fellow freshman Angelena Mexicano in the middle infield.

The Illini have an established line-up with no easy outs. At the top of the order have been two veteran left handers in junior Rachelle Coriddi and senior LeeAnn Butcher. Coriddi is on pace to break Illinois' single-season stolen base record with 12 steals in 13 attempts thus far while Butcher is having a career year with a team-leading .373 batting average. Illinois ranks fourth in the Big Ten with a .295 team batting average.

"We work all the time on situational hitting and have a line-up that has proven capable of producing runs in a number of ways," Sullivan said.

Defensively, Illinois has turned nine double plays and in the circle, Mary Miller tossed a two-hit shutout vs. Coastal Carolina and was on the short end of a 1-0 decision to Central Michigan at the Speedline Tournament.

This weekend will provide several challenges and ironically ends with Northwestern, whom the Illini open Big Ten play with just six days later. The Wildcats are 15-6 on the season and 24th in the latest NFCA poll. They hold wins over Stanford and, thanks to a walk-off home run, produced a 2-1 come-from-behind win over #2 California last weekend. The host Cardinal, a top-five team themselves, is 19-3 with losses to Northwestern, Pacific and Princeton and nine wins by shutout (including an 18-0 triumph over DePaul).. UNLV enters the tournament 19-11, Hawaii is 17-14 and St. Mary's (Calif.) is 5-16.

The Illini play UNLV (11 a.m.) and Hawaii (1 p.m.) on Thursday, Stanford (5 p.m.) and St. Mary's (7 p.m.) Friday, and Northwestern (11 a.m.) on Saturday.The Illini defeated UNLV 6-0 at the 2004 Speedline Tournament in the schools' only meeting. Hawaii, meanwhile, downed the Illini 4-0 at Stanford last season.

"The Big Ten is one of the premier softball conferences in the nation," Sullivan. "One of the reasons is the conference teams proving themselves against a challenging schedule. Our goal obviously this weekend is put it all together and build some momentum heading into the conference season."