Softball Signs Five For 2013

Coach Sullivan welcomes five signees for the Fall of 2013.
Coach Sullivan welcomes five signees for the Fall of 2013.

Nov. 14, 2012

Urbana, Ill. - The University of Illinois softball team welcomes five signees for the Fall of 2013, Nicole Evans, Alyssa Gunther, Brandi Needham, Ruby Rivera and Jade Vecvanags. The incoming class consists of two players from Illinois, two from California and one from Texas. The Illini bring in two pitchers, two middle infielders and an outfielders, all of whom have also been dominant at the plate. The Illini look forward to the speed, power and poise of the five signees.

"With the upcoming graduation of Pepper (Gay) and Jackie (Guy), the top priority in this class was pitching," said Head Coach Terri Sullivan. "In Brandi and Jade we struck gold, finding not just complete pitchers, but players. In the circle, they both are fierce competitors and workhorses who hit their spots. Their pitching numbers are IMPRESSIVE, but another exciting thing about the two of them is that we expect them to be the first pitchers at Illinois to be regularly in the offensive lineup as well...Brandi and Jade are athletes!

"Athlete is also what best describes the three position players that join our pitchers in the class of 2017. Gunny (Alyssa), Nicole and Ruby are `make it happen' players who have exceptional and rare game instincts; they can think three plays ahead. It is those types of players who consistently lead their teams into the championship arena.

"Nicole will bring power to the speed of our current outfield. She can hurt you with one swing of the bat and has a contagious positive attitude.

"Gunny is a no-nonsense, even keeled infielder. This makes her thrive under the type of pressure our aggressive scheduling brings game in and out.

"Ruby makes all the routine plays, and the ESPN ones! However, she makes those special plays look routine! Every time our coaching staff watches her play, she does something that NO OTHER player we have EVER watched does.

"Jade, Brandi, Nicole, Gunny and Ruby have another thing in common that we believe makes this a special class; they have had some of THE BEST coaching from both their high school and travel ball coaches and their pitching and hitting instructors. They really have learned from teachers who are among the best in the country, therefore their so called `Softball IQ' is very high. "


Nicole Evans on signing day

Nicole Evans

Name: Nicole Evans
Position: Outfield
Hometown: Glen Ellyn, Ill.
High School: Trinity High School
Travel Team: Illinois Chill

Nicole Evans, an outfielder from Glen Ellyn, Ill., is a three-year starter for Trinity High School. Last spring, she hit .429 on the season with 11 doubles, five triples, eight home runs, 41 runs scored and 35 RBI. Additionally, she walked 12 times, stole nine bases and had an on base percentage of .478 and a .798 slugging percentage. In her first three seasons at Trinity, the slugger accumulated a total of 30 career home runs.

A three-time Girls Catholic Athletic All-Conference player, she was named second-team all-state twice by the Chicago Tribune and picked up an all-state honorable mention as a freshman. Additionally, as a sophomore, the Chicago Sun Times named her as one of the Top 35 Softball Players to Watch and as one of the Top 100 Softball Players. Evans led the Trinity Blazers to a second place finish in the State 3A division as a freshman, won regionals as a sophomore and sectionals as a junior.

"We are so excited that Nicole picked Illinois," said Trinity Softball Coach Bob Osborne. "I believe she is going to have a great career there. Nicole is the type of girl that isn't only great for the softball program but great for the school.  Nicole strives for greatness in every part of her life.  She is a great student, a great leader and a great athlete. Nicole has led us to three regional championships, two sectional championships, and one second place finish in state during her three years. Nicole is also #3 in her class and she volunteers coaching younger kids in her spare time.  We at Trinity are so proud of  her."

A three-year member of the Illinois Chill, Evans led her travel team to a second place finish in Chicago Metro in 2012. Last spring she put together 35 hits, including nine doubles, two triples and five home runs, and added 23 runs and 32 RBI. The outfielder hit .302 with 17 walks for a .393 on base percentage and a .543 slugging percentage.

"Nicole's tireless work ethic and her leadership skills are exceeded only by her ten-thousand watt smile," said Illinois Chill Head Coach Pat Morris. "Hard to believe, but I know that Nic's best days as a softball player are still ahead of her!"

Evans also shines off the field, earning several academic awards, including being named Trinity High Student of the Year as a freshman and sophomore, earning the Chemistry award in 10th grade and the English Award in 11th grade. She was also named #2 in her class as a sophomore and #3 in her class as a junior.

Alyssa Gunther on signing day

Alyssa Gunther

Name: Alyssa Gunther
Position: Second Base/Outfield
Hometown: Tinley Park, Ill.
High School: Tinley Park High School
Travel Team: Orland Park Sparks

Alyssa Gunther comes to the Illini from Tinley Park, Ill. A three-year starter for Tinley Park High School, Gunther led the Titans to two regional championships, a sectional final and a sectional semifinal. A consistent hitter, Gunther batted over .400 all three seasons, including hitting .559 with 40 stolen bases as a junior. A three-time all-conference player, Gunther was named all-area by the Southtown Star in 2012 and all-area honorable mention in 2010. She received the Golden Bat award all three seasons, the Golden Base award in 2011 and 2012 and the Golden Glove award as a freshman. Prior to the 2012 season, the Chicago Sun-Times named her as one of the Preseason Top 100 Players.

"When Alyssa Gunther came to Tinley Park High School, we all knew she was going to be a good softball player/athlete," said Head Coach Wendy Podbielniak. "What we have learned over the past four years is how truly special she is as an individual. Watching this young lady grow as an athlete and as a person has been an experience of a lifetime for myself, the Tinley Park staff and the administration. We are confident and excited to see Alyssa pave a new path for her fellow teammates and peers at the University of Illinois. The future is filled with uncertainties, but one thing we can all look forward to is `Gunny' accomplishing wonderful feats for the Fighting Illini! Thank you to the Gunther family for allowing me the distinct honor of coaching this amazing young lady. Gunny, you will be missed, but we will be watching proudly one day in the stands at the University of Illinois!! Way to go kid!!!"

Outside of school, Gunther plays for the Orland Park Sparks under Head Coach Joe Tholl. She has led her team to three noteworthy national finishes, placing ninth at the 12U Northern Nationals, and 25th at both the 14U and 18U ASA Nationals.

"The phrase that describes Gunny is `a student of the game,'" said Tholl. "She is one of the top three kids I have had in my years that understands the game the best. Work ethic, she is second to none. I wish I could be blessed with at least six Gunnys on every squad I coach."

In addition to softball, Gunther was a two-year captain of the Trinity High JV volleyball team, and has always been an exceptional student. A member of the Mathletes, Gunther was in the top five in her class in 2011 and has been in the top 1% of her class all through high school. She is a Titan Scholar, and a member of the Academically Talented Program and the National Honor Society.

Brandi Needham on signing day

Brandi Needham

Name: Brandi Needham
Position: Pitcher
Hometown: Dripping Springs, Texas
High School: Dripping Springs High School
Travel Teams: Texas Bombers Gold (2012-13); Texas Royals Gold (2010-11)

Brandi Needham is a decorated pitcher from Dripping Springs, Texas. A three-year player for Dripping Springs High School, Needham has accumulated a 57-12 career record, including going 31-3 with a 0.70 ERA in 210.1 innings pitched in 2011 and leading the Lady Tigers to the AAAA State Finals. Needham has tallied 414 strikeouts in her three seasons, and had perfect defensive seasons in 2010 and 2012, tabbing a .967 fielding percentage her sophomore year. Needham also shines at the place, hitting well over .300 every year, including .436 last spring as a junior.

"Brandi is the epitome of hard work," said Dripping Springs Softball Coach Keith Tuck. "She has improved every year since she was nine years old. Usually you don't see a kid with that much ability work that hard, but Brandi does!! Each year she sets out to make whatever weakness she has a strength, and she has done that every year. She is a great young lady that makes any coach she plays for proud. I can't wait to see her take the field for the Illini for the next four years!!"

Needham began her high school career by being named 26 AAAA Newcomer of the Year to go along with a First-Team All-District nod. The following season she repeated as a First-Team All-District pitcher in 25 AAAA, and was named District Pitcher of the Year. The Dripping Springs Lady Tiger Team MVP, Needham was named All-Centex Player of the Year, TSWA AAAA State First-Team pitcher and the TSWA AAAA State Player of the Year. In the spring of 2012, she was named District MVP, DS Lady Tiger MVP and First-Team All-Centex. Additionally, she was named Academic All-District all three years.

The star pitcher has played with two different travel teams over the past two seasons, hitting .412 with a 1.05 ERA with the Texas Royals Gold team in 2011, and hitting .364 with a 1.17 ERA and a 1.000 fielding percentage with the Texas Bombers Gold team in 2012.

"Brandi is without a doubt one of the top pitchers to come out of the state of Texas in the 2013 class," said Texas Bombers Gold Head Coach Scott Smith. "Her ability to get people out with a variety of pitches makes it very difficult on hitters to sit on any one pitch. She really reminds me of Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals. She has the ability to throw her fastball by you on one pitch and then break off a screw, curve or changeup to really bear down on you in every zone that a hitter has to cover. With the awesome coaching she will receive at the University of Illinois, the sky is the limit for her!"

Ruby Rivera on signing day

Ruby Rivera

Name: Ruby Rivera
Position: Shortstop
Hometown: Garden Grove, Calif.
High School: Pacifica High School
Travel Teams: Orange County Batbusters

Ruby Rivera is a talented shortstop from Garden Grove, Calif. A three-year starter for Pacifica High School, Rivera led the Mariners to back-to-back CIF second round appearances in 2010-11 and a third-round finish in 2012. The shortstop was named Rookie of the Year and Second-Team All-Empire League as a freshman, then earned first-team all-league honors in 2011 and 2012. Additionally, in her junior season, Rivera was named Defensive Player of the Year and to the All-Tournament team at the Carew Tournament.

"Ruby is one of the most athletic young ladies I have ever coached," said Pacifica Softball Coach Mark Campbell. "She plays at such a high level and makes it look easy. Ruby is the perfect role model for younger players to watch, so they can work hard and dream that one day they could play like her."

A travel player since 2007, Rivera currently plays for Gary Haning on the 18U Orange County Batbusters. The Garden Grove, Calif., native led the Corona Angels to a third-place 14U finish in Texas in 2008 and a second-place 14U finish in Georgia in 2009. After joining the 16U Batbusters in 2011, she led her team to a second-place finish at the Colorado Tournament. This past season, she returned to Colorado where her 18U Batbusters team took first place at the tournament.

"Ruby is an extremely talented and very versatile athlete," said Haning. "She can play any position on the field other than pitcher, and she has the ability to be a dangerous hitter."

In addition to softball, Rivera is also a four-years starter for the Pacifica High basketball team, who made it to the CIF second round in 2012.

Jade Vecvanags on signing day

Jade Vecvanags

Name: Jade Vecvanags
Position: Pitcher/Outfield
Hometown: Orange, Calif.
High School: Orange Lutheran High School
Travel Team: Explosion (2012-13); Corona Angels (2006-12)

Jade Vecvanags comes to Champaign-Urbana from Orange, Calif., where she pitches for Orange Lutheran High School. Vecvanags led the Lancers to back-to-back CIF quarterfinal appearances in 2011-12, and capture two straight league titles including going undefeated in 2011. The hurler was named one of the top-10 freshmen in the county in 2010, and followed with a pair of first-team all-league selections the next two seasons. As a junior in 2012, Vecvanags went 16-1 in the circle with a 0.86 ERA, while striking out 155 batters in 114 innings. At the plate, she hit .407 with 10 home runs and 26 RBI. Following the season, she was named Trinity League MVP and Most Valuable Pitcher, first-team all-country, first-team all-state and a MaxPreps All-American. 

"We are so excited for Jade to be signing with the University of Illinois," said Orange Lutheran Softball Coach Steve Miklos. "Jade is a complete player who put up some lofty offensive numbers and dominated in the pitching circle last season. We are looking forward to her senior year at Orange Lutheran and her future career at Illinois.  Jade is a winner and will be an immediate asset to the Fighting Illini program. She will be missed and we wish her all the best as she moves on to the next level."

A member of the Corona Angels since 2006, Vecvanags joined the Explosion travel team in 2012. The Orange, Calif., native led her team in the 2008 12U ASA National Championship. Two years later, she return to the ASA National Finals in the 14U division, and was in the 16U Premier Top 10 in 2010 and 2011. Her team was then in the 18U ASA Gold Nationals Top 10 in 2011.

"Jade has been an outstanding student," said pitching coach Richard McArther. "She learns very well, she's a real hard worker and has a great attitude. She will just get better."

Off the field, Vecvanags excels in the classroom, earning High Honor Roll her first three years of high school and becoming a member of the National Honor Society this fall.