Softball heads south for opening contests

By Meghan Montemurro

Leading the nation in home runs is no small feat. After hitting 84 long balls in only 55 games last season, the Illinois softball team hopes its offensive onslaught carries over into the new spring season. While the weather may not suggest that it’s time to break out the leather mitts and metal bats, the Illini are excited and have high expectations for the 2008 season.

Led by tri-captains Shanna Diller, Angelena Mexicano and Sarah Bryers, the team has continued to work and improve on other facets of the game, mainly pitching and shoring up the defense. However, that doesn’t mean head coach Terri Sullivan and her staff are complacent when it comes to offense.

“We are real excited about our offense with some key returning players that bring experience at the plate, and that’s what it takes to become a prolific hitter at this level,” Sullivan said. “We also feel like we’ve added an element to our offense and that’s a little bit more speed, so now we can put some pressure on our opponent.”

Diller, a senior, hit .303 last season with 16 home runs and 45 runs batted in. The Bloomington, Ill., native said the team doesn’t need to focus or worry about trying to do too much at the plate.

“We have a lot more speed on the team this year and we’re more well-rounded when it comes to offense,” Diller said. “The home runs will come; we don’t have to aim for that.”

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Even with a strong veteran presence, younger players will be making themselves known as well. Illinois has some big holes to fill on the right side of the infield after losing Molly Lawhead and Kisten Martin to graduation and may turn to freshmen Audrey Gallien and Danielle Zymkowitz to fill the void.

The opening weekend will be no cakewalk as Illinois travels to Tampa, Fla., for the USF Tournament. The Illini will play three games over the course of five days, highlighted by matchups against Memphis, tournament host South Florida and Florida.

“We have once again a very challenging schedule – one of the best in the country – and we are playing 17 opponents that are in the top 20, and several twice,” Sullivan said. “Anytime there is challenge there is opportunity, and now it’s a matter of what you do with the opportunity.”