Illini to Battle Pair of Ranked Foes This Week
AGAINST THE FIELD
Illinois is 18-9 all-time against Minnesota, but will be looking for its first-ever win over Missouri, going 0-5 all-time. All five of Illinois' games against Missouri have been in Columbia, Mo., on the campus of the Tigers, including three NCAA Regional games. Illinois was sent to the Columbia Regional in 2009, where the Illini dropped their first-ever meeting with the No. 11 Tigers, 5-1, on May 16. The Orange and Blue returned to the Columbia Regional in 2010, and defeated DePaul twice, but dropped a pair of close games with No. 8 Missouri, 3-1 and 4-2, to once again watch their season come to a close in Missouri. The Illini went to Columbia for the third straight season to participate in the Tiger Invitational on March 12-13, 2011, but dropped a pair of games to No. 18 Mizzou, 4-3 and 8-0 (6).
The Illini have a strong hold on the all-time series with Minnesota, leading 18-9 all-time, but the Golden Gophers enter the weekend riding a four-game winning streak over the Fighting Illini. Prior to the four-game skid, Illinois had won eight of the previous nine matchups with UM, including a pair of run-rule victories. Minnesota got the best of the Illini last season, sweeping the relocated Big Ten series as the home team at Eichelberger Field, with wins by scores of 5-1, 2-0, and 9-3.
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 nine teams that are ranked in this week's NFCA or ESPN.com polls, including taking on then-No. 1 Tennessee on Feb. 15, this week's No. 25 team in the ESPN.com poll USF on Feb. 16, and planning a game against now-No. 1 UCLA for March 2 that was rained out. Illinois dropped a pair of close games to then-No. 14 South Alabama on Mar. 8-9, and are set to play a doubleheader with No. 16/19 Missouri and a three-game series against No. 15 Minnesota this week. The Illini also have upcoming three-game series against No. 6 Michigan and No. 19/18 Nebraska, along with a doubleheader against No. 23/RV Northwestern. Additionally, Illinois' opponent DePaul is receiving votes in both polls.
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 NCAA RPI, the Illini have nine games scheduled against top-10 teams, 17 against the top 25, 23 against teams in the top 50, and 35 against the top 100.
So far, the Illini have taken care of business against weaker teams, going 15-4 against teams ranked below them in the RPI, with two of those losses coming at the hands of #102 Iowa, who is bound to improve in the rankings as Big Ten play continues. Thus far, #61 Illinois is 0-5 against higher-ranked teams, but has plenty of chances to pick up some quality wins, as 18 of its remaining 24 games are against top-60 teams, including all five of this week's games (#11 Missouri, #17 Minnesota).
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 54 regular-season games, just 15 will be played at Eichelberger Field, while the remaining 39 will take place away from home. Illinois plays five games against ranked opponents this week away from home.
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. The Illini have turned a total of 16 double plays over the first 24 games of the season, and have led the Big Ten in DPs all year.
The Illini are averaging 0.67 double plays per game, which ranks third 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 and second baseman Allie Bauch have both participated in 10 double plays, which ranks second in the Big Ten, while Ruby Rivera is right behind with nine. Katie Repole and Jess Perkins have each turned three DPs, and Brittany Sanchez and Nicole Evans have combined for a total of three from the outfield.
The Illini tied the school record by turning three double plays in the second game of the Iowa series, all three of which included both Rivera and Perkins. In doing so, Rivera became just the second shortstop in Illini history to turn three DPs in one game (Lindsey Hamma, 5/11/01), while Perkins was the third first baseman to do so (Audrey Gallien, 3/7/08; Meredith Hackett, 3/26/09); the pair were the seventh and eighth Illini overall to participate in three double plays in one game, as it was the sixth Illinois game in which the feat had occured.
BEST OF THE BEST
The Illini have put up strong numbers across the board this season, sitting in the top 50 in the NCAA in five different statistical categories. The Illini defense ranks third in the nation, averaging 0.67 double plays per game, and 28th nationally in fielding percentage (.973). The Illini offense ranks 19th in doubles per game (1.63), 47th in runs (5.54/g), 49th in slugging percentage (.474), 50th in home runs (0.88/g), 51st in triples (0.25/g) and 54th in batting average (.306).
Individually, Alex Booker ranks 43rd in the nation in batting average (.440) and 20th in triples, without including the one she hit against UC Santa Barbara in the washed out game. Ruby Rivera is 65th in sacrifice flies, 100th in sacrifice bunts, 108th in doubles and 105th in "toughest to strikeout." Remeny Perez ranks 19th in the nation in hit by pitch per game, followed by Jess Perkins in 87th. In the circle, Brandi Needham is 37th in the nation in walks allowed per seven innings and 70th in ERA, while she and Shelese Arnold are in the top 100 with two shutouts apiece. As a staff, the Illini rank 62nd in ERA.
The Illini are among the top in the Big Ten in several categories as well. As a team, Illinois leads the league in double plays turned, as well as fewest walks and unearned runs allowed. In the field the Illini rank second in assists, and third in fielding percentage and stolen bases against. At the plate, they are second in triples, third in doubles, home runs and fewest strikeouts, and fourth in batting average, slugging percentage and hit by pitch. After the first weekend of Big Ten play, the Illini lead the league in chances, putouts, assists, double plays, fewest Illini caught stealing (0) and most opponents thrown out stealing.
Individually, 12 different Illini rank in the top 10 in at least one category, most significantly Booker, who leads the league in triples and is in the top 10 in batting average, slugging percentage, on base percentage, runs, RBI, total bases and stolen bases. Rivera ranks in the top 10 in doubles, sacrifice flies and sacrifice bunts, while Perez is fourth in HBP, and Bauch and Johnson are both tied for eighth with seven stolen bases. The same individuals rank even higher in Big Ten play, including Brittany Sanchez, who is top 10 in plate appearances, doubles, home runs and sacrifice bunts in conference play.
In the circle, Needham leads the league in walks allowed per seven innings and has still yet to allow a triple, while placing in the top eight in eight additional categories, including the fourth-best ERA. Over the first week of Big Ten play, she led all pitchers in strikeouts, totaling 16 over 18.0 innings.
On defense, Jenna Mychko has had the third-most fielding chances to still remain errorless (102), while Perez ranks second in chances, putouts and double plays, as does Bauch in DPs and assists. Mychko is eighth in chances and putouts, and ninth in caught stealing, including tied for the league lead in Big Ten play.
The Illini have also set some Big Ten single-game highs, including leading all teams with 15 runs against Binghamton, 13 RBI against Western Michigan, 20 assists against Eastern Illinois and three double plays against Iowa. Booker's 10 total bases against Creighton, when she hit for the cycle, and Bauch's school-record-tying nine assists vs. EIU are also tops in the conference, along with Needham's 9.0 IP vs. Iowa.
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 .313 with two outs, and leads its opponents 48-28 in two-out RBI. Alex Booker is tops on the team with 10 two-out RBI, followed by Remeny Perez and Brittany Sanchez with seven, and Allie Bauch with six. 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 IUPUI, 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. Jess Perkins drove in the game-tying run in game three against Iowa on a two-out RBI double in the bottom of the sixth to help the Illini to their first Big Ten victory in extra innings.
MOVING `EM UP
Illinois has been very effective with runners on base, hitting .320 with runners on and .325 with runners in scoring position. Illini batters have been successful at advancing runners on base in 47.5 percent of the time, and have come up with RBIs with runners on third and less than two outs 57.1 percent of the time. Illinois batters have been extremely effective with the bases loaded, hitting .409, including a grand slam by Remeny Perez.
Individually, six Illini batters are hitting at least .300 with runners on base, led by Kylie Johnson (9-16, .563), Alex Booker (22-47, .468) and Allie Bauch (13-36, .361). Johnson is hitting a team-best .556 (5-9) with runners in scoring position, followed by Booker (13-28, .464) and Brittany Sanchez (13-32, .406).
Conversely, the Illini pitching staff has limited its opponents to hitting just .265 with runners on base and .273 with runners in scoring position, including 1-for-20 at the UTA Hilton Invite, stranding 135-of-209 base runners (64.6%).
Illinois has done a fantastic job getting innings started, as leadoff batters have reached base in 66-of-160 innings (.413), while the Illini's opponents have been effective just 30.9 percent of the time (50-for-162). Illini leadoff batter Allie Bauch has reached base 14 times in 42 attempts (.333). She has gotten on safely seven times as the first batter of the game, including three leadoff home runs. Every Illini who has led off at least five times is hitting .300 or better in the situation, as Brittany Sanchez (.435) and Jenna Mychko (.455) have both reached as the leadoff batter 10 times.
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.
Alyssa Gunther missed the majority of tournament season due to a hand injury shortly before the season, but she finally made her debut for the Orange and Blue at home during the Fighting Illini Classic. Beginning her career as a pinch runner, scoring a run against both North Dakota State and Omaha, while stealing her first career base against UNO.
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.