No longer teammates, former Illini share pro experience



By Meghan Montemurro

The softball diamond is different. There is no orange and blue ‘I’ carefully drawn and painted on the grass in center field. The jerseys lack the familiar Illinois colors, instead replaced by black and red. Once flanked by fellow student athletes, the field is now littered by the best the game has to offer.

Sitting in a dugout that is more fitting for a rec league game than a professional softball team, Akron Racers shortstop Angelena Mexicano had difficulty suppressing her vocal support for Rockford Thunder third baseman and former Illinois teammate Shanna Diller following standout defensive plays. Not that she sees anything wrong with that.

“It is hard to (not cheer for Diller). But it’s just because I get so proud of her, seeing her out there making these awesome plays,” Mexicano laughed. “It’s just like, ‘that’s my girl!’ Playing against them, seeing them in the dugout while I’m out on the field playing is just weird.”

Diller echoed Mexicano’s sentiments.

“It was definitely a little weird seeing (Mexicano) over there, but we said little things to each other on the side,” Diller said.

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With a crowd at Players Park sprinkled with orange, Diller has been afforded the opportunity to play the game she loves in front of her family and friends due to the short ride from her native Bloomington, Ill. to Rockford.

“It’s great because my whole family gets to come up here for almost all the games and friends will come up too so it’s always a bonus being so close,” Diller said.

Mexicano has had a greater adjustment than her ex-teammate. The San Jose, Calif., native said Illinois became here home away from home, making the transition to Akron, Ohio, difficult and “took some getting use to.” The third-round draft pick hasn’t been home since December but expects to head back for Thanksgiving. The opportunity to play the game she loves professionally more than makes up for it.

“I’ve been loving it,” Mexicano said. “Just the girls, the scenery, the fans and just the experience of playing professional ball at this level against the best pitchers, against the best defenses. It’s a great opportunity, and I’ve been having a blast.”

Playing with the best means also competing against the best, a challenge in itself.

“It’s very intimidating,” Mexicano said. “I mean you see these players on TV, you see these players that set records and these national teams, it’s like, ‘wow, we’re playing against the USA team.'”

“Coming into it I didn’t expect much out of it so I kind of relaxed, but at the same time I’m excited and ready to prove what I can do,” Diller said. “I’ve been lucky to play the positions that they needed.”

Despite setting a school and Big Ten single-season home run record, Mexicano has struggle offensively in her first professional season. The shortstop is hitting .169 with two doubles, seven RBIs and 17 strikeouts.

“I was realizing at the beginning of the year that we are at the top,” Mexicano said. “You either perform or do your best and go out and there and give it what you got and not think twice about it. It’s been rough for me, transition-wise; it’s all timing.”

Diller, hitting .220 with four doubles and eight RBIs, has played in all 28 of the Thunder’s games, whether it has been filling the role of designated player, the hot corner at third base or roaming right field, which Diller described as “difficult” after never playing the position before.

“You definitely feel pressure when you are out there to do your best, but at the same time, you are here for a reason so you just gotta be confident in yourself,” Diller said. “You just have to stay confident in your swing and know that strikeouts are going to happen, and you aren’t going to always get a hit, but you got to keep plugging away knowing something will fall.”

Like with any new team, adjustments have to be made with teammates on the field.

“It took a while to get use to each other’s voices, knowing our grounds, our territories on the field,” Mexicano said.

Diller and Mexicano acknowledged one of the bigger changes has been the length of roadtrips. While Big Ten road games would typically span two days during the weekend, the National Pro Fastpitch league features five-day weekends. Diller said before the home series against the Racers, the Thunder (14-18) had been on the road for about a month.

“At Illinois we would go to a lot of southern places and now there are a lot of teams on the east coast so you get to go out there and experience all of that, so I think it’s neat that we get to go to other places,” Diller said of her travels.

The fanfare has increased from Diller and Mexicano’s time at Illinois. Following the Racers (16-16) 9-2 win Friday, fans – mainly comprised of eager girls hoping they will one day to be in these player’s shoes – asked Diller to sign their T-shirts, softballs or whatever they could get their hands on. Despite being a member of the opposing team, Mexicano had her own small posse, posing for photos and signing softballs.

“It’s crazy after games, fans lining up at the fences,” Mexicano said. “It’s overwhelming, but it’s so nice. Everybody just admires you on the field.”

As for bragging rights between the former teammates, the Racers and Thunder split the four-game series in Rockford this past weekend, but square off again Tuesday in Akron to start another four-game series.