Seasoned players key for weekend tourney

2009 was a year of many milestones for the Illini softball squad.

Head coach Terri Sullivan’s upstart Illini streaked to the program’s third-ever NCAA Tournament appearance behind a young but potent group and were headlined by the Illini’s second ever All-American in second baseman Danielle Zymkowitz.

But this year’s group has one undeniable edge over its accolade-garnering predecessors: experience.

With another year under their collective belt, Zymkowitz and Co. figure to make waves in the Big Ten this season. Seven starters return from the group that reached the Columbia, Mo., Regional, including Zymkowitz and senior outfielder Hope Howell, who will serve as co-captains for the 2010 campaign.

Joining the duo on the 2009 All-Big Ten team last season were junior outfielder Hollie Pinchback and sophomore third baseman Kelley Wedel, who will likewise be counted on to lead the Illini’s offensive attack.

On the mound the Illini are led by sophomore sensation Monica Perry, who took the Big Ten by storm last season, shattering the team’s single-season strikeout record in her first year in Champaign. The right-hander was 24-15 with 223 strikeouts.

However, Sullivan said that Perry still has room to improve in order to take her game to the next level, namely as a leader young in years but not experience.

“I really expect ‘Moni’ to be the leader of our pitching staff,” Sullivan said.

“She did have a solid first year, but she’s still looking to improve both individual numbers for herself … (and) hitting her spots better so we keep the ball in the park a little more, and she will cut that in half hopefully for us.”

Up first for the Illini is the UNLV Sportco Kick-Off Classic in Las Vegas, a round robin tournament in which the Orange and Blue are slated to play five games in three days this weekend.

Illinois will take on host UNLV and Cal-State Bakersfield on Friday, and the Saturday schedule features a pair of afternoon contests against Loyola Marymount and Long Beach State. Illinois concludes play Sunday against Kent State.

If it’s true that the hungriest team comes out on top, the Illini figure to be smiling after Sunday’s games conclude. Howell spoke about the palpable restless feeling that has been building on the team for months.

“It’s one of our goals to win three of the five tournaments,” Howell said. “We’re definitely going for this one, it’s going to be one of the three … We’re really excited to see some competition, really (excited) to play somebody aside from each other … We feel very prepared.”

Zymkowitz added that the team’s preseason sweat has translated to confidence and that the upcoming difficult schedule will pay dividends in preparing to overtake the top teams in the entire conference.

“We’re going to go into each of the tournaments with confidence just because of how hard we’ve worked. We came here a week before school started and just practiced every single day,” Zymkowitz said.

One story line to follow this weekend is how Sullivan will handle her inexperienced group of catchers. Junior Audrey Gallien, sophomore Linnea Detrick and freshman Stephanie Cuevas are currently locked in a three-way battle for the spot left by graduated four-year mainstay Lana Armstrong. The decision, Sullivan said, will be made based on on-field performance.

“Audrey Gallien has been really swinging the bat well since August, and (in order to get) her bat in the lineup there’s the potential of putting her behind the plate or as a designated player,” Sullivan said.

“Detrick has a strong throwing arm and is getting stronger at all the skills it takes to be a catcher. Stephanie Cuevas really carries herself well behind the plate and calls a good game, receives the ball well, she just needs to get a little bit stronger … Our pitchers are comfortable with all the catchers and that’s key, really.”