Softball
2014 Softball Year in Review

June 25, 2014

2014 Final Softball Notes

2014 University of Illinois Softball Notes

  • Overall Record: 24-26 // Big Ten Record: 7-16 (9th Place)
  • Began the season with the best start in program history, winning the first eight straight games
  • Kylie Johnson and Allie Bauch were named to the NFCA All-Midwest Region Third Team, and Johnson also picked up All-Big Ten Second Team honors
  • Alex Booker became the first Illini and second Big Ten player ever to hit for the cycle on Feb. 23
  • Illinois ranked second in the nation with a program-record 34 double plays (0.68/g). Remeny Perez tied the school record with 22 DPs, and Ruby Rivera (18) and Allie Bauch (16) set records for shortstop and second base, respectively
  • The Illini topped No. 4 Michigan, 10-2, in six innings on April 25 to mark their highest-ranked defeat in program history
  • Jenna Mychko set new records for single-season (1.000 in 202 chances) and career (.992) fielding percentage, ranking fourth all-time in runners caught stealing
  • Alex Booker retires in the top 10 all-time at Illinois in career batting average, stolen bases, on base percentage and fielding percentage, posting the best fielding percentage ever for an Illini outfielder
QUICK HITS
In 2014, Illinois...
  • Went 13-6 in neutal-site games
  • Went 11-3 in February and 4-1 in May
  • Went 14-2 when scoring at least six runs
  • Went 20-2 when holding opponents to two or fewer runs
  • Went 17-5 when scoring first
  • Posted seven shutouts
  • Recorded three extra-innings victories and two walkoff wins

SEASON AT A GLANCE

The 2014 softball season ebbed and flowed, highlighted by the best start to a season (8-0) in program history and a decisive run-rule victory over No. 4 Michigan on April 25, marking the highest-ranked win ever for Illinois softball. The Illini began the year with a 5-game sweep of the Rosemont Rumble, then Allie Bauch and Remeny Perez led off with back-to-back home runs against Binghamton to help run the winning streak to eight straight.

The UTA Hilton Invitational witnessed history on Feb. 23, as Alex Booker became the first Illini and just the second Big Ten softball player ever to hit for the cycle, leading Illinois to a 9-1 victory over defending MVC Champion Creighton. One day earlier, Shelese Arnold turned heads by tossing a one-hit shutout against UMKC, allowing a seventh-inning bunt single for the only base hit of the game.

Arnold and Brandi Needham combined for seven shutouts on the year, including an eight-inning 2-0 victory over Hofstra and a 3-0 win over No. 16 Missouri tossed by Needham. The rookie hurler also led Illinois to its first Big Ten Tournament victory since 2004 with a complete-game shutout over Iowa.

After a strong showing in pre-conference tournaments, the Illini hit a rough patch as they headed into Big Ten play, experiencing a stretch of 20 out of 21 games against teams appearing in a poll and pulling out five victories, including taking down No. 16 Missouri (3-0), No. 20 Nebraska (11-4) and No. 4 Michigan (10-2). The Illini closed out the regular season with a three-game sweep at Penn State and advanced to the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals with the help of seventh-inning home runs by Ruby Rivera and Nicole Evans and a scoreless outing by Needham in the circle.

With a ground ball pitcher (Needham) tossing the bulk of the Illini's innings, the Orange and Blue defense took care of business behind her, ranking second in the nation and setting a new program record by turning 34 double plays in just 50 games (0.68/g). Perez tied the school record by turning 22 at first base, and Rivera (18) and Allie Bauch (16) set position records at shortstop and second base, respectively.

Behind the plate, Jenna Mychko led the Big Ten with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage, recording more than double the fielding chances (202) of the next player to remain perfect. She set a new Illini record for most chances in a season without recording an error and finished her career with the best fielding percentage in school history (.992). Additionally, her 19 career runners caught stealing ranks fourth all-time among Illini catchers.

Classmate Alex Booker also left her mark on the Illini program, finishing her productive career ranked sixth all-time in batting average (.327), eighth in on base percentage (.388), fifth in stolen bases (44) and third in stolen base percentage (.846). She notched the fifth-best fielding percentage all-time (.988), leading all outfielders in the category, and registered 11 outfield assists. Following the season, Booker signed a professional contract with the Chicago Bandits.

JOHNSON, BAUCH TAB ALL-REGION HONORS

Sophomores Kylie Johnson and Allie Bauch were honored by the NFCA with All-Region selections, as the pair was named to the All-Midwest Third Team. Bauch started all 50 games at second base as the Illini leadoff batter, slugging .547 with a team-best eight home runs, two triples and six doubles, while walking a team-high 21 times for a .417 on base percentage. She led the Orange and Blue with 19 multi-hit performances, while knocking in 23 runs and stealing eight bases. A true catalyst for the Illini offense, Bauch hit .424 when leading off an inning, starting 20 games on first base and crushing five leadoff home runs.

Johnson led the Illini with a .383 batting average, good for eighth all-time at Illinois and sixth in the Big Ten, while leading the conference with three triples during league play and swiping 10 bases. A great situational hitter, Johnson was tops on the team by hitting .423 with runners on base and .560 with runners in scoring position. Additionally, she was .400 with two outs, picking up nine of her 14 RBIs with two away. Johnson heated up as the year came to a close, finishing the season on an eight-game hitting streak, including six hits in four games against top-10 Michigan and a two-run triple at Penn State.

KYLIE  JOHNSON EARNS SECOND-TEAM ALL-BIG TEN

The Big Ten awarded two Illini with postseason honors, as Kylie Johnson took home All-Big Ten Second Team honors and Jenna Mychko garnered her second-straight Big Ten Sportsmanship Award. Additionally, Mychko earned the Big Ten Outstanding Sportsmanship Award, given to one male and one female student-athlete across all sports at each Big Ten institution.

As one of Illinois' two seniors, Mychko's leadership behind the plate helped guide a young pitching staff to a successful debut season. Her attitude and team spirit helped to motivate the team, while she contributed immensely on the field as well. The senior hit .273 with five doubles, six home runs, 21 RBIs, 10 walks and six sacrifice bunts. Behind the plate, Mychko threw out 11 runners stealing, participated in three double plays, and set new program records for single-season (1.000 in 202 chances) and career (.992) fielding percentage at Illinois, while graduating with the fourth-most runners thrown out stealing of any Illinois catcher.

SIX-RUN SEVENTH PROPELS ILLINI TO TOURNEY WIN

The Illini defense held strong against Iowa in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament, but despite limiting Iowa to four hits over six scoreless innings, Brandi Needham and the Illini entered the final frame in a 0-0 tie. Then Nicole Evans stepped up to the plate and drove the second pitch of the inning deep to right field, breaking the scoreless tie with a solo home run and putting Illinois on the board. 

Evans' bomb ignited the Illini offense, as Allie Bauch followed with a triple, Kylie Johnson beat out an infield single, and Alex Booker tabbed an RBI single. Another RBI single by Brittany Sanchez was followed up by a three-run jack from Remeny Perez, as the Illini put up six runs on eight hits to claim their first Big Ten Tournament victory since 2004.

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. They 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

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 on May 5. She was 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  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 are 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.

DOUBLE TROUBLE

The Fighting Illini defense has done a fantastic job at keeping base runners from scoring, most effectively by turning double plays. The Illini well surpassed their previous program record of 27, set over 55 games in 2006, by turning 34 double plays in just 50 games, leading the Big Ten all year. 

The Illini finished second in the nation by averaging 0.68 double plays per game, topping the Illini's previous high of 0.49 per game from 2006. The 0.68 mark ranks 19th all-time in NCAA history, while their total of 34 ranks 22nd.

First baseman Remeny Perez led all conference players by being a part of 22 double plays, tying first baseman Jenna Hall's record set in 2006. Shortstop Ruby Rivera and second baseman Allie Bauch follow with 18 and 16, respectively, marking the most double plays turned by an Illini at a position other than first base. Additionally, Rivera's 18 DPs set an Illini freshman record.

Perez also led the Big Ten with nine DPs in conference play, followed by Rivera with seven, and Bauch and Jess Perkins with six. Perkins turned a total of seven double plays, Katie Repole had her hand in four, and Brittany Sanchez (CF) and Jenna Mychko (C) made three. Brandi Needham turned a pair from the pitcher's mound, and Nicole Evans, Shelese Arnold, Danielle Trezzo and Kylie Johnson 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 occurred.

Illinois matched that performance in game one against Penn State, with Perez having her hand in all three at first base. Perez became the ninth Illini and fourth first baseman to participate in three.

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 $1,100, 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 offense 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 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 led the Big Ten for much of the 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 RBIs 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 FACED TOUGH 2014 SLATE

According to the NCAA SOS rankings, Illinois played the 32nd-toughest schedule in the nation, including the 18th-hardest regular-season slate, and faced the most difficult schedule of any Big Ten team. The Illini faced the toughest regular-season slate of any Big Ten team, and following the conclusion of the NCAA Tournament, ranked fourth in the conference behind Super Regional qualifiers Michigan (22), Nebraska (24) and Minnesota (30).

Illinois had 27 games scheduled against teams that participated in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, including five opponents that advanced to the Super Regionals. Illinois went 4-19 against NCAA participants and 2-9 against those advancing to the second weekend.

The Illini had games scheduled against nine teams that were ranked in the final polls by the NFCA or ESPN.com, with and additional three opponents receiving votes. Illinois posted three wins over teams that finished the year in the top 25, adding a 2-0 victory over RV Hofstra.

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 did not appear 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 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 off 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, 25 against teams in the top 50, and 34 against the top 100.

The Illini have took care of business against weaker teams, going 18-5 against teams ranked below them in the RPI, including 16-3 against those outside the top 100. Additionally, Illinois shut out #16 Missouri on Mar. 26, crushed #11 Michigan via run rule on April 25, topped #21 Nebraska on April 5, and defeated #38 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 faced seven teams that won their conference in 2013 and three that were crowned 2014 championship. Additionally, four Illini opponents won their conference tournaments in 2014: DePaul, Minnesota, North Dakota State and Utah Valley.

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 12th, 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.

LEADING LADIES

Illinois did a great job getting innings started, as leadoff batters reached base in 136-of-333 innings (.408), while the Illini's opponents were effective just 38.1 percent of the time. Illini leadoff batter Allie Bauch reached base 36 times in 85 attempts (.424). She got on safely 20 times as the first batter of the game, including five leadoff home runs. Every Illini who led off at least three times hit .260 or better in the situation, including five that hit over .400. Jenna Mychko (.487) is second to Bauch by reaching 19 times, followed by Brittany Sanchez (.381) with 16 and Ruby Rivera (.519) with 14. Remeny Perez (.688) posted the best average, going 11-for-16 in the situation.

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.

Alex Booker SIGNS PROFESSIONAL CONTRACT

On June 16, 2014, senior left fielder Alex Booker signed a professional contract to play with the Chicago Bandits of National Pro Fastpitch (NPF). Booker is the sixth former Illini to play for the NPF, as she joins her former teammate Danielle Zymkowitz `11 in Chicago this summer. Shanna Diller, Jenna Hall, Lindsey Hamma and Angelena Mexicano have also spent time in the NPF, while the pair's 2014 teammates include four additional former Big Ten student-athletes.

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.

DAZZLING DEBUTS

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 RBIs, 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, robbing the batter of an RBI single to right by making the out at 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 that 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 RBIs 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 was 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, she scored 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 2013 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 RBIs to hit .417 with two down at the Rosemont Rumble. In comparison, Illinois' opponents recorded just two 2-out RBIs.

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 RBIs, 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.

HEADLINES