A tireless work ethic over four season at Illinois led Danielle Zymkowitz to earn recognition as one of the most lauded players at Illinois - earning All-Big Ten and NFCA All-Region and All-America honors.
May 24, 2011
URBANA, Ill. - At third base following a triple against Longwood University on March 4, senior second baseman Danielle Zymkowitz stood only 60 feet from scoring her 168th run, a mark an Illinois Softball player had yet to reach. Already ahead by three en route to a 7-5 victory, classmate Hollie Pinchback followed Zymkowitz with a base hit, only this one was special - sending Zymkowitz sprinting to the top of the record book. Entering her final year as an Illini with 150 runs scored, it was inevitable Zymkowitz would earn this mark. However, the speedy, five-tool player's capacity to achieve the feat only 14 games into the year is a testament to her abilities as the complete softball player, one of only a few to ever wear the Illini colors.
Zymkowitz traveled 2,000 miles from West Hill, Calif., prior to the 2007-08 school year to begin what would eventually become one of the most heralded individual careers in Illinois Softball history. With the graduation of 2007 starting second baseman Molly Lawhead leading up to Zymkowitz's arrival, Illinois head coach Terri Sullivan knew Zymkowitz's impact would be felt immediately.
"Danielle always made the plays," said Sullivan on how Zymkowitz earned her starting job immediately. "Second base is a difficult position to field. You need to be very intelligent and there are a lot of responsibilities you have throughout the game. Danielle stepped in right away and there wasn't a competition between her and anyone else once she took the field."
Zymkowitz hit .318 in her first season facing college pitchers, a modest number by the standards she would set over the next three years. At the conclusion of her freshman campaign, Zymkowitz placed among the team leaders in nearly every offensive category, including batting average, runs, hits and stolen bases. However, Zymkowitz saw room for improvement where others would be content with a strong beginning.
"I knew I needed to work hard," said Zymkowitz on adjusting to the college game and finding success against collegiate pitchers consistently. "I constantly told myself during my freshman year that there were second basemen on the other teams we faced that had been playing for three years. I knew I needed to work that much harder to be successful against them."
The hard work paid off immediately as the awards and recognition began rolling in during Zymkowitz's second year. Following her initiation into college softball in 2008, Zymkowitz shattered the idea of the "sophomore slump" by taking home 2009 NFCA All-America and All-Midwest Region honors. The California native also earned First Team All-Big Ten status after leading the conference with 48 runs scored, while connecting for a .401 batting average - the second highest in the Big Ten. Even USA Softball noticed Zymkowitz's abilities after she hit .900 during a three-game stretch against Illinois State and Penn State, naming the Chaminade High School graduate the National Player of the Week.
"Her hard work made her even more of a threat offensively," said Sullivan in recognition of Zymkowitz's improvements as a player under her tutelage. "She is not just a slap-hitting player by any means, she swings the bat well and she has gotten so much stronger physically from playing the game and her work in the weight room. Even more than that, she developed into a great leader for our squad."
Zymkowitz never let up in the weight room or the infield, wanting to avoid leveling out as a player after such an outstanding 2009 season. With this continued dedication to excellence, it was certainly not a fluke her junior season, when she surpassed the standards set as an All-American the year prior, coincided with one of the most successful seasons in program history. In her third college campaign, Zymkowitz batted .409 with a conference-leading 76 hits and 36 stolen bases in 37 attempts, while taking the Orange and Blue to within one win of the NCAA Super Regionals. The Illini finished tied for second in the Big Ten with a 16-2 record and the squad's 45-8 overall mark represented the second-best winning percentage in Division-I softball. More NFCA Midwest All-Region and All-Big Ten First Team honors rolled in and Zymkowitz continued to climb the Illini rankings in nearly every statistical category.
"To defend against her is a difficult task for an opponent," said Sullivan on the dangerous player Zymkowitz has grown into over the past four season. "At bat, she has spent most of her career hitting at least in the high-.300s. Opponents cannot just play tight infield defense on her as you can with a slap-hitter and the outfield has to respect her speed. She is just a really tough leadoff batter and is never an easy out to record."
After opening the 2011 season hitting a respectable .341 with 27 runs scored on 30 hits and seven walks through tournament action, Zymkowitz caught fire once Big Ten competition began. The career leadoff hitter at Illinois imposed her will on conference pitchers, hitting .587 against Big Ten teams, the highest mark in conference history and 95 points better than the next batter on the year. Over the 20 Big Ten games on the season, she recorded a conference-best 37 hits, seven more than the next player, and a Big Ten-leading 23 runs scored. Zymkowitz also placed second in on-base percentage, reaching 66.2 percent of the time she stepped to the plate, and finished third in Big Ten-only stats for total bases, at 44.
The constant production within conference play during 2011 also resulted in Zymkowitz earning the top career spot in two important categories, hits and stolen bases. During a 4-for-4 performance at Iowa on May 4, Zymkowitz surpassed the all-time base knocks (Lindsey Hamma, 268) and thefts (Rachelle Coriddi, 87) marks with a second-inning RBI-double and a sixth-inning stolen base following a walk. Zymkowitz never let up as the Illini finished out the season with seven wins in the final nine games, wrapping her career with 277 hits, 202 runs scored and 91 stolen bases, while also owning a career batting average of .384 and career stolen base percentage of .858, all the highest of any Illini in the 12-year history of the program.
"Danielle is absolutely one of the most complete players ever at Illinois," Sullivan said. "She has been a significant part of our team improving and her attitude has led other players to want to be here to play alongside her. By far, she is one of the best players to ever wear an Illinois uniform."
In addition to earning her third consecutive First Team All-Big Ten and First Team NFCA All-Midwest Region honors, Zymkowitz also received recognition for her work on the diamond throughout her career, becoming the only Illini to date to be named a finalist for the Lowe's Senior CLASS Award - an honor given to athletes who show dedication to the classroom, community, competition and character. It is fitting that one of the "complete" Illini players earns acknowledgment as one of the top softball players in the nation.
"It is definitely a great honor to be considered for the Lowe's Senior CLASS Award because it acknowledges my contributions on and off the field," Zymkowitz said in reflection of the honor. "I am glad to represent the Fighting Illini with this nomination and I hope to make the University of Illinois proud."
Regardless of whether or not Zymkowitz closes her career as the Lowe's Senior CLASS Award recipient or with her second career All-America award, it is clear she has represented the Fighting Illini perfectly. A place on nearly two dozen Illinois records lists, status as one of three All-Americans to dress for the Illini, multiple Academic All-Big Ten honors and a tireless dedication to community contributions guarantee Zymkowitz ended her playing days recognized as one of the greatest all-around student-athletes in Illinois history.