Illinois softball to help kick off Broncos’ inaugural season

By Kate Munson

When the Boise State softball team takes the field Friday to face the Illini, it will mark more than just the beginning of a new season. For the Broncos, it will mark the beginning of a program.

“We’re very excited. All the hard work over the last five months or so is now kind of coming through and coming out,” Broncos head coach Erin Thorpe said. “The girls get to hit the field and we’re definitely feeling the excitement.”

But along with the excitement of an inaugural season comes challenges. For Thorpe, one major hurdle will be fielding a team with just six upperclassmen and 11 freshmen. Of the upperclassmen, five have junior college experience, while the lone senior recently finished her Bronco volleyball career.

The new mix makes it hard to plan for a tournament, let alone a season.

“We’re a start-up program, so we have a lot of young athletes, a lot of inexperienced athletes,” Thorpe said. “So we’re coming out there and basically just hoping to come out, play hard and hopefully compete in our games this year.”

When it comes to the Cathedral City Kickoff this weekend, the Broncos are sticking with reasonable expectations.

“We’re not focusing on anyone specifically. We’re kind of going in there blind. We really don’t know how we will match up against any particular team,” Thorpe said. “More this first weekend, (we’re) just basically preparing our girls to get out there and experience their first touch of Division 1 competition.”

Illinois has no plans to make the weekend any easier for the Broncos.

“We’re excited to play ball, period, so whoever that first opponent is, the first game of the year is always exciting,” head coach Terri Sullivan said.

“As far as playing a new program, it’s exciting and we don’t take that lightly at all. There’s so much parity in college softball. All I have to do is tell this team the story of our opening game or our opening Big Ten weekend and no one knows anything about you and you really have nothing to prove or nothing to lose, so I think it will be, on our opponent’s end of things, you’re just out there ready to kick off a tradition.”

The Illini will also face a pair of teams with well-established traditions in games against No. 14 California and No. 20 Long Beach State on Saturday.

The Golden Bears return six starters from a team that finished 2008 with a trip to the NCAA Super Regional. Sophomore Valerie Arioto paces California offensively. The utility player hit .324 and drove in 55 runs on her way to earning all-Pac-10 honors in 2008.

The 49ers won the Big West title and advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 2008. Leading the way is All-American pitcher Brooke Turner. The sophomore went 27-6 with a 0.80 ERA in 2008 and has been named to the USA Softball Player of the Year Watch List.

But the Illini aren’t daunted by their opponents or their rankings.

“I don’t see any difference in it. You play teams and it’s an opponent,” sophomore outfielder Hollie Pinchback said. “We treat every team the same because at any given moment you can beat a team, no matter what their ranking is. It’s just a number anyway.”

Her coach agrees.

“We’re looking to just focus on our own tradition of winning and that means taking every game seriously and getting the job done. So whatever story an opponent has, whether it’s to start their program or finishing last year high in the rankings or coming off a World Series appearance, it doesn’t matter to us,” Sullivan said. “We can’t control that, that’s an uncontrollable, but what we can control is how we come out that day to face any competition.”