Softball hopes to continue upward trend

By Sultan Abdul-Ahad

Coming off its Sweet 16 appearance last year, the softball team has raised the bar of expectations, not only for itself, but also across the nation.

For the first time in the program’s five-year history, the Illini are ranked in both preseason softball polls. The Illini are 22nd in the USA Today poll and 25th in the ESPN/USA Softball poll.

“It’s not where you start, but where you finish,” said Illini head coach Terri Sullivan.

Last year, the team graduated nine players including their best two pitchers, Amanda Fortune and Sherri Taylor. They combined to throw all but 38 innings last year.

“Last year, we threw out whoever had the hot hand and we will do that again this year,” Sullivan said.

To replace that duo, Sullivan is counting on junior Jackelyn Diekemper, who threw 13 innings last year. She is also expecting sophomore Mary Miller and freshman Claire DeVreese to fill that void.

“We have three exciting pitchers,” Sullivan said. “Each of them throw differently and they work really hard.”

The infield for the Illini will also have a much different look than last year. Three infielders graduated, with junior first baseman Jenna Hall remaining. Hall was a second team All Big Ten player last year, and she is expecting a little more of herself this year.

“I need to step up vocally and be solid in the infield,” Hall said.

While having impressive offensive statistics in her short career with a .317 batting average, she is just as good defensively. She has only committed a total of six errors in two years with a .993 fielding percentage, which is a school record.

Junior centerfielder Rachelle Coriddi will be moving back to her more natural position of shortstop this season.

“The main difference between the outfield and the infield is pressure,” Coriddi said. “Not as many balls come to the outfield compared to the infield.”

Hall and Coriddi will have a leadership role in the infield with the addition of freshman second baseman Angelena Mexicano.

The outfield will be led by senior LeeAnn Butcher, who will move to centerfield in place of Coriddi. Butcher had an average .338 last year and stole 17 bases in 19 attempts. Left and right field will be patrolled by freshman Sarah Bryers and sophomore Molly Lawhead respectively.

The Illini have a tough preseason schedule starting with the Getterman Classic this weekend at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Their first games of the season are on Friday against Centenary College and later that day against 17th-ranked Baylor.

The Illini defeated Centenary last year 13-0 at the season opening Tiger classic at LSU. The Bears are a familiar opponent for the Illini, having faced them three times last year. The last time they faced each other was at the NCAA regionals where the Illini defeated them 4-0 and advanced to the Sweet 16. The other team the Illini face this weekend is Louisiana-Monroe.

The other highly ranked teams on the Illini’s schedule this year are fifth-ranked LSU and ninth-ranked Washington.

LSU defeated the Illini last year in the Sweet 16 and made it to the College World Series along with Washington.

The Illini also face top-ranked California and No. 6 Stanford.

Their Big Ten season begins March 26 against Northwestern. Their first home game of the season is April 6 against Loyola.

“To be the best, you have to beat the best, and we will never have a cupcake schedule,” Sullivan said.