Illini Ready for In-State Clash with ISU Redbirds
AGAINST THE REDBIRDS
Illinois State will be looking to even the all-time series with Illinois, as the Illini narrowly hold the series advantage at 9-8. However, ISU has had the most recent success, winning the last three games in 2011-12, including a 1-0 victory in Urbana on April 4, 2012.
NEEDHAM SHUTS OUT NO. 16 MISSOURI
On March 26, the Illini took on No. 16 Missouri in a neutral-site doubleheader at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo. Illinois freshman Brandi Needham shut down the Tigers, limiting them to just five hits, all singles, throughout a complete-game shutout. A two-out, two-run double by Jess Perkins in the third inning scored Kylie Johnson and Brittany Sanchez, and the Illini tacked on an insurance run in the sixth, with the help of a double by Remeny Perez and a sacrifice fly by Katie Repole. Needham finished out the win with a 1-2-3 seventh inning, making the final out of the game herself by snagging a line drive.
The win marked the Illini's 39th victory over a ranked opponent, and the first over a top-20 team since the Illini defeated No. 17 Fresno State, 5-0, on Feb, 20, 2010. It was Illinois' 12th shutout of a ranked opponent, as they last blanked a top-25 team on April 29, 2012, at No. 22 Michigan, 2-0.
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 last week's NFCA or ESPN.com polls, including taking on then-No. 1 Tennessee on Feb. 15, 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. The Illini split a doubleheader with No. 16 Missouri, but then went 0-3 at No. 15 Minnesota. The Illini also have upcoming three-game series against No. 5 Michigan and No. 20 Nebraska, and a doubleheader against No. 23/RV Northwestern.
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.
The Illini played five games against top-20 teams on March 26-29, starting off hot with a 3-0 shutout of No. 16 Missouri. The Illini led for much of game two, but a two-out rally by the Tigers led to a DH split, with a 9-6 Missouri win in the nightcap. The Illini then went north to St. Paul, where they struggled against No. 15 Minnesota, dropping all three games of the Big Ten series.
According to the NCAA RPI, the Illini have nine games scheduled against top-10 teams, 15 against the top 15, 19 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 15-5 against teams ranked below them in the RPI, and 10-0 against those #110 or below. Additionally, Illinois defeated #8 Missouri on Mar. 26. The Illini has several more opportunities to pick up quality wins, with six more games scheduled against top-15 opponents, and 16 of their 19 remaining games coming against teams in the top 75.
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 are 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 5-1 against 2013 regular-season conference champions (W-UIC-Horizon, W-Loyola-Horizon, W-EIU-OVC, W-Creighton-MVC, W-Hofstra-CAA, L-NDSU-Summit) and 2-3 against tournament champs (W-Central Michigan-MAC, L-USF-Big East, L/L-USA-Sun Belt, 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 18 double plays over the first 29 games of the season, and have led the Big Ten in DPs all year.
The Illini are averaging 0.62 double plays per game, which ranks fourth 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 leads all conference players by being a part of 12 double plays, second baseman Allie Bauch has participated in 11, tied for second in the Big Ten, while Ruby Rivera is right behind with 10. Katie Repole has had her hand in four, Jess Perkins three, 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, and it was the sixth Illinois game in which the feat had occurred.
BEST OF THE BEST
The Illini have put up strong numbers across the board this season, sitting in the top 25 in the NCAA in three different statistical categories. The Illini defense ranks fourth in the nation, averaging 0.62 double plays per game, and 15th nationally in fielding percentage (.976). The Illini offense ranks 22nd in doubles per game (1.59), 47th in runs (5.54/g), 72nd in slugging percentage (.446), 87th in home runs (0.76/g), 82nd in triples (0.21/g) and 77th in batting average (.293).
Individually, Alex Booker ranks 48th in the nation in batting average (.426) and 29th in triples, without including the one she hit against UC Santa Barbara in the washed out game. Ruby Rivera is 22nd in doubles (0.38/g), and Remeny Perez ranks 32nd in the nation in hit by pitch per game. In the circle, Brandi Needham is 56th in the nation in walks allowed per seven innings and 63rd in shutouts. As a staff, the Illini rank 96th 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, are second in walks allowed, assists and fielding percentage, and third in hits and fewest errors. Additionally, the Illini lead the conference in chances, putouts, assists and runners caught stealing during Big Ten play.
Individually, 14 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, hits, total bases and stolen bases. Rivera ranks second in doubles, while Perez is fifth in HBP, and Johnson is tied for ninth with eight stolen bases. The same individuals rank even higher in Big Ten play, including Brittany Sanchez, who is top 10 in plate appearances, at-bats, doubles and sacrifice bunts in conference play.
In the circle, Needham is in the top 10 in 11 different categories, including ERA, strikeouts and opponent batting average, leading all pitchers in innings, appearances, and starts in Big Ten play. She is one of just 10 qualifying pitchers who has yet to surrender a triple. After providing quality relief in the Minnesota series, Jade Vecvanags ranks in the top 10 in opponent batting average, hits, doubles, relief appearances and overall appearances in Big Ten play.
On defense, Jenna Mychko has had the second-most fielding chances to still remain errorless (125), while Perez ranks third in chances, second putouts and tops double plays. Bauch leads in assists and is second in DPs. Mychko is seventh in caught stealing, including tied for the lead with two in Big Ten play. Rivera is fourth in DPs and sixth in assists and Repole is eighth in assists.
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 .293 with two outs, and leads its opponents 52-42 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 Jess Perkins 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. She then hit a two-out two-run double to lead Illinois to a 3-0 victory over No. 16 Missouri.
MOVING `EM UP
Illinois has been very effective with runners on base, hitting .306 with runners on and .304 with runners in scoring position. Illini batters have been successful at advancing runners on base in 46.5 percent of the time, and have come up with RBIs with runners on third and less than two outs 54.7 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 (10-19, .526), Alex Booker (23-53, .434) and Jess Perkins (13-39, .333). Johnson is hitting a team-best .500 (6-12) with runners in scoring position, followed by Booker (14-34, .412) and Brittany Sanchez (14-36, .389).
Conversely, the Illini pitching staff has limited its opponents to hitting just .281 with runners on base and .282 with runners in scoring position, including 1-for-20 at the UTA Hilton Invite, stranding 150-of-256 base runners (58.6%).
Illinois has done a fantastic job getting innings started, as leadoff batters have reached base in 74-of-194 innings (.381), while the Illini's opponents have been effective just 32.1 percent of the time (62-for-193). Illini leadoff batter Allie Bauch has reached base 16 times in 50 attempts (.320). She has gotten on safely eight times as the first batter of the game, including three leadoff home runs. Every Illini who has led off at least three times is hitting .275 or better in the situation, as Brittany Sanchez (.400) and Jenna Mychko (.440) have both reached as the leadoff batter at least 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.