Illini Continue Challenging Slate with Series vs. Ranked Nebraska Squad
DOMINATING ON THE BASE PATHS
The Fighting Illini's run game has been exceptional this year, ranking 22nd in the nation as a team, with an average of 1.92 stolen bases per game. Not only have they been stealing often, but the Illini have been efficient, ranking fourth in the Big Ten in total bases stolen and leading with just four runners caught.
Individuals Alex Booker and Kylie Johnson are both 14-for-15 in steals, ranking second in the Big Ten and in the top 40 nationally. Booker, who missed some of the Palm Springs tournament due to injury, is 32nd in the NCAA, averaging 0.61 swipes per game, and Johnson is 39th overall and 10th among freshmen with a 0.58 mark.
With 25 regular season games still to play, Johnson and Booker are already vaulting up the charts. The pair is currently tied for fourth in Illinois history in single-season stolen base percentage (.933), and three swipes away from breaking into the top 10 in total SB. Additionally, midway through her junior year, Booker sits in ninth all-time in career stolen bases (26) and in sixth in SB% (.788).
As a team, the Illini are having their best running season in school history, eclipsing their previous high of 1.57 SB per game in 2002, and sitting with the best percentage, at .923. The Illini have finished a season with a stolen base percentage above .900 once, when they were 56-for-62 (.903) in 2010.
On the other side of the plate, the Illini battery has been keeping its opponents honest, throwing out a conference-best 10 runners. Jenna Mychko and Stephanie Cuevas, who split time during the majority of the non-conference season, have thrown out three runners apiece, while Linnea Detrick caught four runners stealing this past weekend during the Wisconsin series.
Alex Booker has been a huge jumpstart for the Illini offense at the leadoff spot. In 20 starts at the top of the lineup, Booker has tallied nine hits and a walk in the first inning, hitting .474 with a .500 on base percentage as the first batter of the game. Additionally, the junior left fielder has had 35 leadoff opportunities in any inning, reaching base 17 times (48.6 percent).
The Illinois defense stepped up its game against Wisconsin, turning four double plays during the series, including a school-record-tying three DP in the first game on March 22. The Illini have now put together nine double plays, ranking fourth in the Big Ten and 53rd in the nation.
WINNING ON SUNDAY
The Fighting Illini have been extremely successful on Sundays, going 4-1 so far this season. Illinois has outscored its opponents, 32-11, on Sunday. The Illini's only Sunday loss was a 1-0 pitcher's duel with Georgia Tech, while both of its run-rule victories came on Sundays.
ILLINOIS HAS TOP-10 STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
Illinois has a tough task this season, with 12 scheduled games against opponents that are ranked in the top 25 in the NFCA or ESPN.com polls this week, including six against top-10 teams. According the NCAA SOS rankings, the Illini have played the 8th-most difficult schedule to date - even without getting to play the doubleheader vs. #5 Missouri.
Illinois opened the season with a loss against then-No. 1 Alabama. The Orange and Blue played a pair of games against then-No. 6 Texas in Houston the following weekend. Jess Perkins hit a two-run homer off Texas' Gabby Smith to record the first home run hit off the Longhorns this season, but Illinois dropped both contests. The Illini then squared off with No. 8 California and No. 22 Washington in Palm Springs, along with Georgia Tech, who was ranked the previous week, and Oregon State, who entered the polls the following week. The Illini pitching staff allowed just one earned run against both No. 8 Cal and GT, but went 0-4 on the weekend.
Illinois played No. 19/17 Kentucky and USF the following weekend in Tampa; the Wildcats have moved up in the polls throughout the season, while the Bulls dropped from No. 17/14 to just receiving votes the week of the game. Illinois had an early lead in both games, but lost 5-4 in extras to Kentucky and 3-2 to USF.
The Illini were slated to play a neutral site double header against No. 7 Missouri on March 20, however it was cancelled due to inclement weather and will not be rescheduled.
The Orange and Blue take on No. 24/19 Nebraska in a three-game series this weekend. Last weekend, the Illini went 0-3 in the Big Ten opener again Wisconsin, the top vote-getter outside the top 25 in the ESPN.com poll. The Illini will head north on Apr. 12-14 to face Minnesota, then travel to Iowa City on Apr. 23 for a BTN double header against the Hawkeyes, who are both receiving votes.
The NCAA released its first RPI this week, and despite its sub-.500 record, the Illini are ranked 74th nationally, due in large part to its strength of schedule. Illinois has five opponents in the RPI top 10, nine in the top 25, 14 in the top 50, and 21 in the top 100.
Of Illinois' 34 scheduled opponents, 14 qualified for the 2012 NCAA Tournament, six participated in Super Regionals, and three advanced to the Women's College World Series (Alabama, California, USF). Additionally, `Bama and Cal finished the year #1 and #2 in the final RPI of 2012.