Softball off to best start in school history

First, team. Next, individual.

That slogan encompasses the Illinois softball team’s 2010 season. The Illini (9-1) are focused on putting the team first, and it’s paying off two weeks into the season.

“Our coaching staff tells us every day, ‘It’s not about you, it’s about your team,’” sophomore second baseman Kelley Wedel said. “I think that really shows in our play. We come together — every single win we’ve had has been a team win.”

The Orange and Blue took their team mentality to the Stanford Nike Invitational over the weekend, where they continued on their hot streak by winning four of their five games. The lone loss on the season came against No. 11 Stanford, which shut out Illinois, 8-0.

“Overall it was a solid weekend,” Illinois associate head coach Donna DiBiase said. “We had some good pitching, some very good hitting and solid defense. I am very pleased with our (pitching) staff. They have been complementing each other quite well this year.”

DiBiase is referring to the pitching tandem of sophomore Monica Perry and freshman Pepper Gay. In six appearances this season, Perry is 5-1 with an ERA of 2.90 and 24 strikeouts. Gay is 3-0 on the season while registering an ERA of 0.67. Gay attributes her success in the circle to her offseason preparation.

“In the offseason, we really worked on hitting our spots and not leaving the ball over the center of the plate where the batter can get to it,” Gay said. “(Last weekend) I was hitting my spots really well. My pitches were breaking, and the batters just couldn’t keep up with them.”

The Illini grabbed their first win of the season against a ranked opponent when they took on No. 17 Fresno State on Saturday. Perry secured the win by pitching seven scoreless innings and striking out six, leading her team to a 5-0 win.

“That was an exciting game, a very intense battle,” DiBiase said. “Our team played with a lot of composure throughout the entire game … We just got the clutch hits we needed to win that game.”

Illinois also defeated Sacramento State, 7-1; UC Riverside, 8-0; and Nevada, 7-4. The Illini’s 9-1 start ties the best start in school history, set in 2003.

The Illini are now averaging seven runs per game, yet the team is still concentrated on playing small ball.

“We have just been focusing on advancing runners,” Wedel said. “We’re not so much looking at our average but at our on-base percentage. If you get a walk or get hit by a pitch, we’re just trying to help the team out.”

Wedel’s small-ball game plan is leading to some big-time numbers, as she is currently hitting .385 with two doubles, a homer and 10 RBIs through 10 games.

Regardless of individual accolades and statistics, Illinois is still focused on putting the team first.

Gay reiterated the “team first” mentality.

“We know that everyone has each other’s back, and if someone makes a mistake, the person behind them will be there for them. It’s team first. Not the individual,” she said.