Transitioning to the College Game
Written By: Laura Wickstrom, Sports Information Student Assistant
April 20, 2011
URBANA, Ill. - Most Division I college athletes enter their freshman year having always been the best players on their high school and travel teams, but transitioning to college means their teammates and opponents are all elite players, and they have to improve their game to compete with the best of the best.
In the case of Illinois freshman outfielder Alex Booker, the Gurnee, Ill., native joined the Fighting Illini softball team with an impressive resume of success in the high school and travel team ranks. She earned All-North Suburban Conference honors from 2007-09 and was named to the News-Sun All-Lake Country First Team twice. Intimidating opponents with her speed and agility, Booker was named an "Elite Athlete" at the 2008 Florida Rising Stars Skills Camp and she was also honored as the best player among 393 participants at the 2008 Pennsbury SPARQ Agility Camp. In addition to her domination of the high school circuit, Booker entered college as the all-time leader in hits, runs, total bases, stolen bases, and walks for her travel team, the Lake County Liberty.
Only 36 games into her first year as a center fielder and designated player for the Illini, Booker has already met her first goal of being a starter, but that's just the beginning. Softball is a complex sport that requires strength, accuracy, speed, and knowledge of the game, which are all talents that must be mastered to compete in the Big Ten. Booker has already improved immensely in the pre-season and throughout the 2011 schedule, and head coach Terri Sullivan is confident that she will continue to grow.
"Game experience is really what is helping her to get better and better," Sullivan said. "It's a matter of playing quality competition and consistently competing in practice. She is getting stronger, seeing quality pitching, and I think her confidence is really continuing to grow. Her strength outside of the lines in the weight room is really starting to carry over inside the lines."
Between adjusting to college life, weight lifting, conditioning, practicing and completing all her student rquirements, being a freshman Division I athlete demands so much, but with the support of her teammates and coaches Booker has found success.
"I will definitely say the transition was tough during the fall semester," Booker said. "Throughout the spring I have eased into it a lot more. It's nice having teammates to help me out and tell me how to get things done."
On top of transitioning to college life and the softball schedule, Booker has had to alter her offensive game to face the top-notch Big Ten pitchers who are more experienced and precise than the high school aces she was used to hitting against. Already Booker has earned 19 runs as a result of her 14 hits, two walks, one hit by pitch and various opportunities to create chaos on the base paths through pinch running duties.
"With high school pitchers, my approach was pretty simply," said Booker. "It was my game and I could decide what to do. College pitchers definitely hit their spots a lot better than high school pitchers. They won't throw you a mistake pitch or a pitch straight down the middle of the plate every at bat. In a whole game you will be lucky to get one of those."
Booker also has to focus on base running against an opponent's defense, as every player can throw the ball hard and with accuracy. This makes base running demand more instinct and speed, which Booker certainly does not lack according to her head coach.
"She has really good game smarts and she probably has the most instinct out of all our players," Sullivan said.
Booker has backed up Sullivan's assertions as the Warren Township graduate already has three stolen bases, fifth-best among all Illini players. Furthermore, her 19 runs scored in only 53 at bats and 18 games as a pinch runner is tied for fifth on the team despite her limited opportunities in comparison to others on the team.
"Every catcher has an arm and can throw on target," Booker said. "Sliding is definitely the key. Outfielders also have better throws and their throws are on target every time. Everybody has an arm so it is tough to take the extra base, but we practice aggressive base running in practice every day."
Not only has Booker had to adapt to hitting and running against better pitchers and fielders, but she had to learn to defend against opponents who are more aggressive and quicker base runners, forcing her to concentrate on throwing with more accuracy.
"In high school I used to be able to just whip the ball home or throw the ball to a base as hard as I could," Booker said. "Base runners in college will keep running. Hitting the cut off is key to fielding in college and I definitely learned that this year. One of the main things I have focused on is my throwing and keeping the ball down."
With so much on her plate, Booker stays busy and works hard to achieve her next goal of hitting over .300. Sullivan has a lot of confidence in her potential and sees a bright future ahead of the first-year player.
"She is going to get stronger and stronger and become a real triple threat at the plate," Sullivan said. "Game experience is going to allow her to become a great player. She has a great work ethic and as long as she keeps that and her enthusiasm for the game, she has a really good chance to become a special player."