Softball prepares for 2009 campaign

Softball prepares for 2009 campaign

By Kate Munson

When the Illinois softball squad takes the field for the first time in 2009, it will have a much different look than the team of a season ago.

Gone is Angelena Mexicano, the standout shortstop who belted a Big Ten single-season record 24 home runs in 2008. Also lost to graduation is third baseman Shanna Diller, who stands a close second to Mexicano in many of Illinois’ career offensive categories.

The loss of the two infielders, as well as center fielder Sarah Bryers, has left the remaining Illini to battle for starting positions. And nine new freshmen are making the battle even more intense.

“It’s a fun group. They’re very athletic. They have real good game smarts and they do like to compete, so they raise the bar for our team in certain areas,” head coach Terri Sullivan said of the freshmen.

“We have more competition than we’ve ever had at positions and that really is bringing the best out in everyone.”

But the Illini will have to account for the lost offensive production of Mexicano and Diller. Senior catcher Lana Armstrong is one player who will have to step up.

As a junior, Armstrong tallied 19 doubles – good for most in the Big Ten and an Illinois single-season record.

“Lana has the most playing experience, so on the field we expect her to bring that type of leadership,” Sullivan said.

But Armstrong doesn’t feel that she will be carrying the burden alone.

“We’ve got a lot of new players and some people would see that as a disadvantage, but for us we’re excited about the new start,” Armstrong said. “All of our new players are super aggressive. They all have a lot of fun playing. They’re bringing a new life to our team. We’re all really excited about it.”

Sophomore second baseman Danielle Zymkowitz agreed that the freshmen have brought an exciting new dynamic to the team.

“At the beginning we were a little shaky with the incoming freshmen, but they’ve really stepped it up and had a personality on and off the field, so it’s really easy to work with,” Zymkowitz said. “They’re showing that they love the game and that’s the kind of players you want to play with.”

Zymkowitz, along with junior outfielder Hope Howell, is being asked to take on a larger role on and off the field in 2009.

“We get a lot of leadership from juniors like Hope Howell. She’s one of our captains … because of really what she does on the field,” Sullivan said. “She plays to win and we really want those two to continue to show the team this is what you need to do to be in the upper echelon of the Big Ten Conference.

“They know what it takes and we believe we have all the parts and it’s just putting it together.”

The Illini may still be putting the pieces in place, but that isn’t stopping them from setting goals for the season.

“Our main goal is we want to go to the postseason. That’s something we haven’t done since I’ve been here,” Armstrong said. “Our main thing is we want to go to the postseason and that’s the one thing on our mind.”