2004 Fighting Illini to Reunite for 10th Anniversary at Saturday's Game
April 23, 2014
The first of three home games against No. 4 Michigan kicks off this Friday for Illinois softball, but the main event will be Saturday, April 26, when the storied 2004 softball team is slated to reunite for game two against the Wolverines. With 90 percent of the team coming in from all over the country - California, Texas and Illinois - it will be an exciting homecoming for one of the most successful Fighting Illini teams in the program's 15-year history. As the first freshman class in 2001, the team made back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 2003 and 2004. During the 2004 season the Illini collected 45 wins, tied for the second most in school history, and advanced to the NCAA Regional Final, the program's best-ever postseason run on the cusp of making the Women's College World Series.
The Start of Illinois Softball
Illinois Head Coach Terri Sullivan began the Illinois softball program from scratch in 2000, and brought in the first recruiting class, featuring 17 freshmen, in 2001. The inaugural class broke the record for Big Ten wins by a first-year conference program, finishing fourth in the league after a 12-8 campaign, and went an impressive 4-2 against ranked opponents that season.
The Class of 2004 would go on to post a 167-85-2 (.664) record over four seasons, finishing in the top half of the conference all four years and capping it off with a second-place finish in 2004, along with a trip to the Big Ten Tournament championship game.
The Illini entered the national rankings for the first time in 2003, climbing as high as No. 21 throughout the season, and punched their ticket to their first-ever NCAA Tournament. With 12 of the original 17 recruits returning for their senior year in 2004, and joined by young studs the likes of Jenna Hall and Rachelle Coriddi, the Fighting Illini sailed to new heights. The 2004 Orange and Blue posted a 45-21-1 record, advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year and reached the Regional Final, where their storied season would finally come to an end at the hands of No. 3 LSU, just one step away from reaching the Women's College World Series. Following the season, the Illini appeared in the NFCA Final Poll for the first time, earning the Illini's best-ever final ranking at No. 17.
Katie O'Connell started 250 games at second base for Illinois from 2001-2004 and today is an assistant coach for the Illini. O'Connell is able to pass along her experience and knowledge of the game to her team and is excited to share stories with her former teammates this coming weekend. The Joliet, Ill., native ranks among the program leaders in games played, games started, at bats, doubles, walks, sacrifice flies and sacrifice hits.
"The big thing was the senior group, we all came in as freshmen," O'Connell said. "Seventeen of us came in and there were 12 of us by the end of it. We just built that core up and we had stud players come in after us that had a high level of softball skills. We clicked on the field and we clicked off the field. It was a good chemistry and Coach Sullivan corralled us to be that type of team. We took ownership, and we thought it was our team. We had great pitching, we had players that just loved Illinois and had a lot of pride and didn't want to give in."
After graduating from Illinois, former starting pitcher Amanda Fortune coached softball at Wright State and Northern Illinois before coming back to UI to earn her master's degree and become an Event Coordinator.
"I think one of the things that made our team so successful is that we loved the game, but we also loved to be together as a team," Fortune said. "We always traveled in a pack. My time at Illinois was honestly the best time of my life so far. I learned so much about life, and it's a great source of pride for me to say I not only went to Illinois but that I was also on the first varsity softball team."
Illini first baseman Jenna Hall (2003-06) was a First Team All-American, the first for Illinois, and is arguably one of the best softball players to ever wear Orange and Blue. Hall went on to play professionally for the Philadelphia Force of the National Pro Fastpitch league from 2006-08. Following her professional career, Hall spent five years coaching at Ohio University and is currently in her second year as an assistant coach at Ohio State. Because she's also currently in season, Hall will not be able to attend the reunion but said that she's grateful for the event because it was a special year and put Illinois on the map for quality softball programs.
"I think it was a combination of a few things," Hall said of what made the 2004 team a success. "First, the team chemistry and unity was unparalleled. It was a sisterhood from the day we stepped on campus. Second, we were all in it for the good of the team. It was never about the individual. The most important thing to all of us was winning, no matter who got the credit. And obviously we had some very talented softball players that allowed us to succeed day in and day out.
"I think Illinois has given me the mindset that through hard, smart work I can achieve anything. It taught me the value of loyalty, both to others and yourself. And I also walked away with a fantastic education coupled with an amazing athletic experience."
O'Connell does her best today to help relate to the girls on the team and guide them on their own journey to success. As a former student-athlete, she understands what they have to do outside of softball and the demands of school, but also knows how awesome Illinois is and how great it is to play for Coach Sullivan and most importantly to be a Fighting Illini.
"I get it when the times are tough," O'Connell said. "That group we had in 2004 just had a winning way about them. So many of them are so successful now in what they're doing in life and they were that type of person when we were playing.
"I think the team today does know what they accomplished. We have an old highlight video that Coach Sullivan will bring out sometimes. They'll watch that a time or two and they just love it because there's so much pride and emotion that the girls see. They love the history. Senior Alex Booker is always talking about bringing the past with the present, but this team wants to have its own destiny, and as alumni we want them to be better than what we were and that's to get to the World Series and one day win it."