Illini Open Big Ten Tournament Thursday vs. Iowa
The Big Ten Tournament returns in 2014 for the second-straight season, after a four-year hiatus, and will once again follow a single-elimination format, with all 12 conference members receiving an invitation. Play kicks off at 11 a.m. Thursday, May 8, with the first of four first-round games, to be contested between the teams seeded 5-12, while the top for regular-season finishers receive a first-round bye.
After a grueling conference slate, Illinois captured the #9 seed and will face #8 Iowa at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday. The winner of the first-round matchup will go on to face top-seeded No. 10 Michigan at 4:30 p.m. on Friday for a chance to advance to Saturday's semifinals. The final three games will be contested on Saturday, with the Big Ten Championship slated for 7:30 p.m. on Saturday night. All first-round games will be streamed on the Big Ten Digital Network, with the Big Ten Network picking up all games from the quarterfinals on.
Illinois enters the postseason with an all-time record of 7-11 and will be looking for its first tournament victory since 2004. The Illini went 2-2 to finish third (of 6) in 2001, then again went 2-2 to claim fourth in 2002. After finishing fifth in 2003, the Big Ten moved to a single-elimination format in 2004, where the Illini advanced to the championship game but fell to Michigan State, 7-5. The Illini enter the 2014 tournament looking hoping for their first victory since their run to the title game, falling the first round in their previous four tournament appearances.
Illinois' first and potential second-round opponents have the longest history with the Big Ten Tournament, as Iowa and Michigan are the only two teams to qualify for all 16 Big Ten Tournaments dating back to 1982. Michigan has had by far the most success, claiming eight tournament titles and owning an all-time record of 34-13. Iowa won in 2001 and 2003 and is 21-22 all time. Wisconsin returns to the field as the defending tournament champion, earning the four seed for this season's postseason tournament. Illinois is one of five Big Ten teams that are aiming for their first-ever tournament title, and Michigan is the only team to have claimed more than two.
KYLIE JOHNSON EARNS SECOND-TEAM ALL-BIG TEN
Johnson has played in 43 games this season, making 35 starts in right field or at designated player. Entering the season as a primary pinch runner, Johnson stole four bases on opening weekend, then went 2-for-2 with a double and an RBI as a pinch hitter-turned-designated player against Central Michigan in the final game of the trip. Her effectiveness in the lineup quickly earned her a starting role, appearing in the final 33 games of the season and starting all but one--a game against Iowa in which she went 4-for-4 with two runs after entering the game as a pinch hitter.
The sophomore speed demon leads the Fighting Illini with a .380 batting average on the year, good for eighth all-time at Illinois, while leading the Big Ten with three triples during conference play and swiping 10 bases. A great situational hitter, Johnson leads the team by hitting .438 (21-for-48) with runners on base and .565 (13-for-23) with runners in scoring position. Additionally, she hit .400 with two outs, picking up nine of her 14 RBIs with two away.
As one of Illinois' two seniors, Mychko's leadership behind the plate has help guide a young pitching staff to a successful debut season. Her attitude and team spirit has helped to motivate the team, while she has contributed immensely on the field as well. The senior is hitting .283 with five doubles, six home runs, 21 RBI, nine walks, and five sacrifice bunts. Behind the plate, Mychko has thrown out 11 runners stealing, participated in three double plays, and is on track to set new program records for single-season (1.000) and career (.992) fielding percentage at Illinois, while graduating with the fourth-most runners thrown out stealing of any Illinois catcher.
ORANGE AND BLUE CLOSE SEASON WITH SWEEP
The Illini finished out the regular season in style with a three-game sweep at Penn State to capture the #9 seed for the Big Ten Tournament. Illinois posted a .598 slugging percentage in Happy Valley, as 13 of their 25 hits went for extra bases, including a total of six home runs. Allie Bauch went deep in all three games on the weekend. Ruby Rivera hit two home runs, and Jess Perkins' two hits were a two-run homer and a clutch RBI double.
The Illini pitching staff allowed just two runs over the weekend, as Brandi Needham opened with a five-hit shutout, then allowed just four hits in a 6-1 victory on Sunday. Shelese Arnold picked up a 6-1 win on Saturday, allowing six hits and one run in the complete game.
The Orange and Blue made three errors in game one, but made up for them by turning three double plays, tying the school record. The were then perfect in the field over the final two games, and turned an additional two double plays on Saturday.
NEEDHAM NAMED B1G PITCHER & FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK
After a pair of lights-out performances at Penn State, where she allowed just one earned run over 14.0 innings of work, Brandi Needham was named Big Ten Pitcher and Freshman of the Week. She is the first Illinois pitcher to take home Freshman of the Week honors since the award began in 2011. Moreover, she is the first Illini freshman to earn Big Ten Pitcher of the Week since 2001, the Illini's first season in the Big Ten in which the entire pitching staff was comprised of first-year players.
ILLINI TOPPLE NO. 4 MICHIGAN VIA RUN RULE
On April 25, the Fighting Illini pulled off an exciting upset, trouncing No. 4 Michigan, 10-2, in six innings on national television. The upset marked the sixth time that the Illini have taken down a top-10 opponent, and the highest ranked foe that the Illini have ever defeated. Prior to Friday's victory, the Illini's highest-ranked defeat was over No. 5 LSU, 5-3, on Feb. 12, 2005.
All nine batters in the Illini lineup recorded a hit in the game, a feat Illinois had not achieved since March 19, 2011, when Illinois used an 11-run seventh inning to defeat San Jose State, 14-2, at the Jude Garman Classic in Fullerton, Calif. Illinois collected 14 base hits, had at least two runners on base in every inning, and scored in each of the final four, posting three three-run innings. The Illini closed out the game by hitting three doubles in the sixth inning, as Nicole Evans drove in the 10th run with an RBI double to straightaway center. Brandi Needham pitched the complete game for the Illini, and allowed just one earned run on five hits through the full six innings.
It was the sixth time that the Illini defeated a ranked Michigan squad, including wins over No. 9 Michigan on April 17, 2004, and No. 8 Michigan on April 15, 2007. The 10-2 victory tied the Illini's greatest margin of defeat, marking the second run-rule victory over a ranked foe after Illinois shut out No. 20 Louisville, 8-0, in five innings on Feb. 11, 2007.
The win was the third over a ranked opponent this season, as Illinois shut out No. 16 Missouri, 3-0, on March 26, and the Illini took down No. 20 Nebraska, 11-4, on April 5. Freshman hurler Brandi Needham started in the circle in all three wins, including two complete games. The three ranked wins is the most in a season since the Illini took down three top-25 teams in 2010. The Illini set their single-season record at six ranked wins in 2004, going 6-10-1 overall, with six of those matchups coming to top-5 teams, including two close games with No. 1 Arizona.
Should the Illini win their opening-round game in the Big Ten Tournament, they will likely face a ranked opponent in the second round.
The Fighting Illini defense has done a fantastic job at keeping base runners from scoring, most effectively by turning double plays. The Illini have well surpassed their previous program record of 27, set over 55 games in 2006, by turning 32 double plays in just 48 games and have led the Big Ten in DPs all year.
The Illini rank second in the nation by averaging 0.67 double plays per game, topping the Illini's previous high of 0.49 per game from 2006. The 0.67 mark ranks 18th all-time in NCAA history, and the Illini are just three DPs away from entering the NCAA record books in total DPs, with six teams tied for 15th with 35 in a year.
First baseman Remeny Perez leads all conference players by being a part of 21 double plays, one shy of the Illini record, set by first baseman Jenna Hall in 2006. Shortstop Ruby Rivera and second baseman Allie Bauch are tied for second in the Big Ten with 16 apiece, marking the most double plays turned by an Illini at a position other than first base.
Perez also leads the Big Ten with nine DPs in conference play, followed by Rivera with seven, and Bauch and Jess Perkins with six. Perkins had turned a total of seven double plays, Katie Repole has had her hand in four, and Brittany Sanchez (CF) and Jenna Mychko (C) have made three. Brandi Needham has turned a pair from the pitcher's mound, and Nicole Evans, Shelese Arnold and Danielle Trezzo have each participated in one double play as well.
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.
Illinois matched that performance in game one against Penn State, while Perez having her hand in all three at first base. It marks the seventh time Illinois has done so, and Perez became the ninth Illini and fourth first baseman to participate in three. Michigan is the only other Big Ten team to turn three in a game this season, doing so against Michigan State on April 12.
RECORD CROWD SEES ILLINI TOP No. 20 NEBRASKA
Illinois hosted the 11th-Annual World's Largest Softball Tailgate on Saturday, April 5, featuring local country music star Nick Lynch, tons of kids activities, and a "Diamond in the Rough" promotion, in which one lucky fan won a diamond valued at over $1100, courtesy of Christopher & Co.
The event took place before a Big Ten doubleheader against No. 20 Nebraska, as a crowd of 1,289 fans packed the stands at Eichelberger Field to watch the Illini defeat the nationally-ranked Huskers, 11-4, in the series opener. The crowd was the second-largest in program history, trailing only WLST IV, when a near sellout crowd of 1,445 filed in to Eichelberger to watch the Illini take on No. 11 DePaul on April 28, 2007. WLST XI marked the sixth time that Illinois surpassed the 1,000-fan mark, all of which have come following the tailgate promotion.
The Illini put on quite a show for the packed house, as the Orange and Blue put together 11 runs on 10 hits, including home runs by Alex Booker and Nicole Evans, while the Illini pitching staff limited the Huskers' potent offence to four runs, as Brandi Needham collected her 13th victory of the season and Shelese Arnold recorded her first career save. Four different Illini had two hits in the game, including Booker, who reached base in all four plate appearances, while Ruby Rivera scored a game-high three runs.
BOOKER TABS SECND 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 HAS TOUGH 2014 SLATE
According to the NCAA SOS rankings, Illinois has played the 18th toughest schedule in the nation and has faced the most difficult schedule of any Big Ten team. The next highest SOS rank goes to Nebraska (22), followed by Iowa (34) and Purdue (37). While the SEC owns the top 10 overall, three Big Ten teams are in the top 10 nationally for non-conference strength of schedule: Nebraska (3), Purdue (6), Michigan (8); Illinois comes in at 16th, bearing in mind that the Illini were slated to play #4 UCLA on March 2 but it was rained out.
Illinois had 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), collecting wins over Michigan and Nebraska.
The Illini had games scheduled against seven teams that are ranked in this week's NFCA poll, including two teams that have been ranked No. 1 this season (Tennessee, UCLA). Additionally, Illinois' opponents DePaul, Wisconsin, USF and Northwestern are ranked in the top 30 in both polls.
From March 26 to April 27, 20 of the Illini's 21 games were against teams that were ranked or receiving votes in at least one poll during that time. Illinois State is the only opponent in that stretch that has not appeared in a poll, with Illinois playing 13 games during that time against teams in the NFCA top 25 at the time of the game.
The Illini have captured three wins over ranked opponents this season, shutting out No. 16 Missouri, 3-0, in the first game of a doubleheader on March 26, and topping No. 20 Nebraska, 11-4, in front of a near sellout crowd of 1,289 on April 5. Illinois pulled of the biggest upset of the year on April 25, slugging past No. 4 Michigan, 10-2, in six innings.
According to the NCAA RPI, the Illini had 13 games scheduled against top-20 teams, 23 against teams in the top 50, and 27 against the top 100.
So far, the Illini have taken care of business against weaker teams, going 18-4 against teams ranked below them in the RPI, including 11-0 against those outside the top 105. Additionally, Illinois shut out #9 Missouri on Mar. 26, crushed #18 Michigan via run rule on April 25, topped #19 Nebraska on April 5, and topped #34 Hofstra in extras on March 9.
Throughout non-conference play, the Illini faced 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 were playing their first season in a new conference.
The Illini have faced seven teams that won their conference in 2013, along with five that won their conference tournaments. The Illini went 6-3 against 2013 regular-season conference champions (UIC, Loyola, EIU, Creighton, Hofstra, NDSU, Michigan) and 2-6 against tournament champs (Central Michigan, USF, South Alabama, Hofstra, Wisconsin).
Of their 48 regular-season games, just 15 were played at Eichelberger Field, while the remaining 33 took place away from home.
The Illini had a very challenging Big Ten draw, taking on all six teams that finished in the top half of the conference standings, while missing Indiana and Michigan State, who finished 11th and 12, respectively, along with 7th-seed Ohio State.
BAUCH'S BOMBS BEAT `BIRDS
Illinois moved to 4-0 against in-state competition on April 1, as the Illini lineup belted three home runs against Illinois State in Normal, Ill. For the fourth time this season, Allie Bauch led off the game with a solo home run. In all four of those games, another member of the Fighting Illini also went deep, which for the second-straight time was senior Jenna Mychko, who led off the fourth inning with a solo shot. Four batters and a pitching change later, Bauch did it again, smashing a two-run dinger to right center to put Illinois ahead 5-0 and help lead the Illini to a 7-4 victory over ISU.
Bauch's pair of homers tied the school record, as she became the 11th member of the Fighting Illini to hit two home runs in a game. She was the first to do so in nearly three years, as the feat had not been achieved since it happened five times in 2011, including three by Jessica Davis. The last Illini to go deep twice in a game was Hollie Pinchback, who used the long ball twice to help the Illini top Northwestern, 5-4, on April 30, 2011.
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 SHOT 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, and 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 win with a 1-2-3 bottom of the eighth, with the help of a heads-up play by Ruby Rivera at shortstop, to seal the deal for the Illini and pick up her second career shutout.
Illinois has done a great job getting innings started, as leadoff batters have reached base in 128-of-319 innings (.401), while the Illini's opponents have been effective just 38.1 percent of the time. Illini leadoff batter Allie Bauch has reached base 33 times in 81 attempts (.407). She has gotten on safely 18 times as the first batter of the game, including five leadoff home runs. Every Illini who has led off at least three times is hitting .260 or better in the situation, including five that are hitting over .400. Jenna Mychko (.487) is second to Bauch by reaching 19 times, and Ruby Rivera (.519) and Brittany Sanchez (.388) have both reached to start an inning 14 times.
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.
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.
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.