Poor weather conditions don’t faze Illinois softball

A layer of snow announced the reintroduction of winter to Champaign on Wednesday and the Illinois softball team took notice, bundling up in winter coats and hats as they exited Irwin Indoor Practice Facility for the final time before the first tournament of the season.

“We have a rule on our team that we can never talk about the weather,” head coach Terri Sullivan said. “‘The weather is our friend, never our foe,’ is what we say.”

The weather certainly was friendly to the team last week as warm temperatures gave them the rare opportunity to practice outdoors in

midwinter.

“We were outside every day last week and to us it was like being in Hawaii,” Sullivan said. “It was just fun to be outside, you get a whole different energy level and feel when you’re out with the wind, the sun and on our dirt.”

Although reluctant to talk about possible warm weather, Sullivan did acknowledge that the team was ready to head to Miami for another reason: to get their 2012 season underway.

The Illini will head to the FIU Combat Classic in Miami, and will open the 2012 campaign Friday with games against Massachusetts and No. 25-ranked Louisville. Illinois will be looking to start fresh following the 2011 season in which it finished 27-22 overall and placed third in the Big Ten.

“We’ve been ready since probably before Christmas-time,” senior Danielle Vaji said. “We’re just really looking forward to the season, we’ve got a good group of girls who are ready to go out there and face some good competition.”

The competition will be tough in the team’s five games this weekend, but the Orange and Blue are used to playing tough games at the beginning of the year.

“I’m not a big fan of dipping your toe in the water,” Sullivan said. “We recruit players that want to have this type of challenge: play anyone, anywhere, anytime. I think it makes us better come the end of the season. We’re looking to play our best ball at the end of the season, that’s a big goal of ours and I think this allows us to do that.”

“You’ve got to beat the best to be the best, and that’s what coach Sullivan’s always preached to us,” added senior third baseman Kelley Wedel. “I feel like it’s a good challenge for us to see where we are as a team and see where we can improve.”

Both Wedel and Vaji started more than 40 games for the Illini last season and provide veteran leadership. Junior pitcher Pepper Gay led the team with 32 starts from the circle last year, compiling a 20-14 record with a 2.69 ERA in her first season as the featured pitcher of the team.

A large bulk of the offensive firepower will come from reigning All-Big Ten utility player Jessica Davis. Davis, who split time between left field and shortstop, led the team with 14 home runs and 46 RBIs last year while compiling a solid .316 average.

For now, the Illini will be putting chilly Champaign behind them and heading to Miami with high hopes for the 2012 season.

“Coaching staff, players, everyone involved is just ready to get going at this point,” Sullivan said. “This team has been working since August and really has their eyes set on doing great things.”