First-year players matching expectations for Illini softball

Illinois softball head coach Terri Sullivan was not shy about admitting that she expects freshmen to come into the program and play at a high level from the beginning.

The Illini began last weekend starting three freshmen; center fielder Brittany Sanchez and DH/right fielder Jess Perkins started all five game. After sitting out the first game of the season, second baseman Jami Schkade started the last four games of the FIU Combat Classic.

“We actually don’t call our freshmen ‘freshmen,’” Sullivan said. “We call them first-year players. That’s been since the beginning of our program, when we only had freshmen. Their skill level is high, they’re very mature players, and they’ve played at a high level.”

Sanchez, Perkins and Schkade accounted for seven of the 26 hits and seven of the 13 runs the Illinois offense produced over the weekend. Sullivan attributes the high talent level of her freshmen to the amount of travel-ball experience the players get in high school.

“Nowadays they play travel ball a lot,” Sullivan said. “They play every day in the summer and almost every day in the fall. The difference is that college softball is the highest level of the game. Players throw harder, pitchers hit their spots and you have to have a shorter memory.”

All three of the starting freshmen agreed that although their first college games were a new experience, practice was the hardest thing to adjust to.

“Your work ethic changes completely when you get to college,” Perkins said. “They expect us to work hard so that when we get into the game we say, ‘This is what we’ve been working on every day.’ So it makes it easier to adapt.”

“I think the biggest transition from high school to college is the speed of practices,” Sanchez added. “In high school, our practices weren’t as upbeat and fast moving. People didn’t challenge you as much as they do here.”

Sanchez went 2-for-14 with three walks and four runs over the weekend. Although she struggled at the plate, the Skokie, Ill., native, who started all five games, including three as the leadoff hitter, scored the most runs of any Illini over the weekend. Her run against the Alabama-Birmingham proved to be the game winner. Sanchez used her speed to score on a wild pitch in the top of the eighth inning to score the only run of the game.

Perkins started her career off with a 3-for-14 weekend, also walking once and scoring three runs. Schkade followed suit going a 2-for-9, with a walk and a hit-by-pitch. Perkins and Schkade each added two RBIs.

“I’m expecting them to have a significant impact,” Sullivan said of her freshmen. “The first day of school, in August, I met with that group of first-year players and told them that I expected them to come in and make an immediate impact.”

The freshmen will have plenty of chances to contribute to the team, and they look to continue their success at this weekend’s Time Warner Cable Texas Invitational in Austin, Texas.