Players reflect on record- breaking years

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By Rich Mayor

You’re Linda Kalafatis, Ohio State head softball coach. It’s the top of the third inning of a March 30 doubleheader at Buckeye Field in Columbus, Ohio, and your team leads Illinois 1-0 in the first game. You watch as Angelena Mexicano, the Illini’s dangerous No. 2 hitter, feared for her ability to manufacture runs with one sweet swing of the bat, as she steps to the plate. The first pitch from your hurler, junior Kim Reeder, is fouled off. The next two are balls. Now, with one out and the count in favor of Mexicano, you have a decision to make.

You look over to the on-deck circle, where Shanna Diller awaits. Diller is capable of just as much damage as Mexicano, even more so if Mexicano reaches base. Still, you see the current hitter and count as a greater threat, and perhaps you and Reeder would like to take your chances with a fresh count and Diller. Reeder throws two more balls, and Mexicano walks on five pitches. Diller steps to the plate.

The right-handed Reeder throws her first pitch to the lefty Diller, and a strike is called. You watch as a ball, called strike, two foul balls and two more balls follow. It’s now a 3-2 count, and pitcher and batter dig in for the payoff. The pitch is delivered, and you cringe as Diller makes contact – exit stage left. The ball flies over the fence in left-center field, and just like that, the Illini lead your Buckeyes 2-1. What went wrong?

The reality is that nobody could blame Coach Kalafatis for pitching around the senior shortstop Mexicano, who leads the nation in home runs with 24 and is tops in the Big Ten with 62 RBIs.

This is a conundrum every Illini opponent faces each time through lineup. It’s a pick-your-poison situation: Mexicano or Diller. Illinois head coach Terri Sullivan imagined what it’d be like in the opposing dugout, being forced to face these two.

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    “I think I’d need a couple Tylenol,” she said with a laugh. “I know it’s very difficult for the teams that we face. The teams really have to locate their pitches and not make many mistakes to either one of them. You really just have to go at them, which allows them to try to win the pitcher-hitter battle.”

    The battle began four years ago in the spring of 2004, when Mexicano and Diller began their Illinois softball careers. The duo finds its roots in two different parts of the country – Mexicano from San Jose, Calif., and Diller from Bloomington, Ill. Upon arriving in Champaign-Urbana, the distance between the two went from 2,134 miles to less than one. With the exception of one Diller sick day this season, the two have started in each of the 218 games since day one of freshman year. Their maturity and growth over this stretch didn’t go unnoticed.

    “(Diller), Mexicano and (senior center fielder Sarah Bryers) are the first tri-captains we’ve had in the program’s history because of their unselfishness and how hard they work,” Sullivan said.

    Diller reflects on how she’s progressed since her first year as an Illini: “My confidence level has definitely grown since then. You know, freshman year can be extremely overwhelming at times and you want to come in and make an impact, but you don’t know necessarily what your role is on the team. I think this year especially, we’ve taken the senior leadership to heart. We want to lead this team through our performance and the way we communicate.”

    This year, the Illini (30-29, 8-10 Big Ten) have battled through bouts of inconsistency, but the team has always been able to find steady offense in the lumber of the No. 2 and 3 hitters who have made Illinois softball history.

    When the 2008 season comes to a close, the tandem’s place in the Illini record books will look something like this: Mexicano – first in runs scored, doubles, home runs, RBIs and total bases, second in doubles, fifth in walks and stolen bases, and sixth in hits and batting average. Diller – second in runs, home runs, RBIs and total bases, third in walks, fourth in batting average and sixth in hits.

    The two choked up on fake tears when asked what the other meant to them, but true sincerity eventually shone through.

    “Diller’s like my right hand,” Mexicano said. “She’s really helped guide me through these years, on the field and in classes. I’m just so happy that we met each other, and I hope that she’ll be around for the rest of my life.”

    “Obviously with (Mexicano) and a lot of the girls becoming best friends, being able to play next to your best friend every day, being together on and off the field is great,” Diller said. “It’s definitely going to be weird this summer, playing this sport without having her next to me.”

    The graduating duo will separate this summer to play professionally, Mexicano with the Akron Racers and Diller with the Rockford Thunder. Fellow seniors Sarah Bryers, Claire DeVreese, Katie Gaitros and Makenzie Smith will also graduate and move on.

    Coach Sullivan had the last word on the record-breaking and high-character women she brought in four years ago.

    “They’ve really had a lot of pride being in orange and blue coming from two totally different backgrounds, as one’s from down the road in Bloomington and another from across a few states in California. But they’ve grown to just love the University of Illinois, and they take great pride in the softball program and their team. You couldn’t find two nicer kids, and we’ll greatly miss them.”