‘You definitely don’t want to face her’: Vickery demonstrates leadership, ’God-given talents’ for Illinois softball


The Daily Illini Photo File

Utility, Jaelyn Vickery, cheers on her teammates during a match against Purdue on April 16. Vickery talks about growing into the leadership position within her team, and going on to obtain Second-Team All Big-Ten honors.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

Redshirt sophomore outfielder Jaelyn Vickery is not known for being vocal or yelling on the bench. Playing center field, a position that inherently demands one to be a leader on the field, Vickery instead leads by example through her strong work ethic and all-around talent and skill.

When called into head coach Tyra Perry’s office at the end of last season, Vickery was tasked with taking on a more advanced leadership role. Despite only having one full season of experience under her belt, the redshirt sophomore was not surprised to be pushed to take on additional responsibilities.

“I knew within myself that I was capable of adopting that because I’ve been a leader and a captain on my high school teams,” Vickery said. “It’s very different in college because every single player is very good … but I wasn’t surprised when she told me to step up into more of a leadership role and kind of bring the intensity and filter it out throughout the entire team. I was just like, ‘OK, let’s go,’ and I think it’s gone well so far.”

Perry has end-of-year meetings with all of her players, using the time to reflect on the past season on a more personal and individual level. Though she has had dozens of those conversations, her meeting with Vickery following the 2021 campaign, a season in which the Illini went 24-20 and barely missed out on the postseason, stuck out.

“If you see her, she’s strong, very confident, fast,” Perry said. “She has the softball IQ; she has the leadership abilities. As far as talent goes, she’s the type of kid you want in your corner on your team. You definitely don’t want to face her. The conversation was more just in regards to her working hard to make sure that at the end of her career, she has completely maximized all of her God-given talents and abilities and that she’s just constantly looking to become the best player that she could possibly be.”

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Vickery did not see the field as a true freshman after sitting out through injury during the first month of the 2020 season, which was eventually canceled in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Without any college experience, the Kankakee native was thrust into the starting lineup in 2021 as a redshirt freshman, which gave her the ability to be named to the conference’s all-freshman team.

“My coach actually told me, because I was one of the only true freshmen who redshirted since I had an injury, she told me a week after we were on our first Florida trip and we beat Michigan and I played well against them,” Vickery said. “She told me, ‘We’re gonna redshirt you, so you’re gonna make the All-Freshman Team.’ So it’s a week after playing, she’s telling me I have to make the All-Freshman Team, and I was like, ‘Oh, OK,’ but I honestly just cleared it from my mind and decided I just gotta keep playing.”

Making her debut on Feb. 26, 2021, Vickery registered two hits and a run batted in in her first college game before notching a career-high three hits the next day. 

The center fielder continued her strong start into the rest of the season, finishing her first full campaign by playing all 44 games and recording a .306 batting average, 37 hits, seven doubles, two home runs and 16 RBIs. Those stats, along with strong defensive numbers, earned her Second-Team All-Big Ten honors.

“It means so much because my journey and just overall relationship with softball has been pretty intense just because coming in as a true freshman and having our season cut off without ever seeing the field, I was anticipated to be one of the hottest prospects in the game,” Vickery said. “Then all of a sudden we’re cut off, and I wasn’t even sure if I was ever going to play softball ever again.”

She has continued that success into the start of the 2022 season, recording a hit in eight of the Illini’s first 10 games. At the Arkansas Invitational from Feb. 18-20, Vickery hit .500 with eight hits, three doubles, two home runs, four RBIs and three steals.

The big weekend helped her secure her first Co-Big Ten Player of the Week honors, sharing the accolade with Nebraska sophomore infielder Sydney Gray. 

“To get that recognition, just it honestly recognizes not only the work I’ve done but that my coaches and my team have put into me of just working on staying relaxed at the plate and throughout the game,” Vickery said. “It means a lot because it means I’m one of the hottest players right off the bat, and honestly I definitely wanna just keep it going. 

“It was cool to get Player of the Week, but I would’ve traded it for more team wins because at the end of the day it’s the W that matters the most.”

Through 10 games this season, Vickery has recorded two home runs, the total number she registered over the course of 44 games last season. She attributes her early-season success to her offseason training, as she spent countless hours with her dad hitting baseballs with a heavy bat. Though the method was unconventional, those resources were all she had, and it helped her train her eyes to watch the ball while also forcing her to swing harder with more power.

This work has altered her strategy and approach to every at-bat. She now is more aggressive and eager at the plate, a mentality that has already produced results.

“This year I wanted to say to myself, ‘When I’m on offense, I’m on offense,’” Vickery said. “That basically means that I’m in attack mode, and this year I’ve just really adopted the mindset of, ‘If I see a pitch I like, I’m going to smash it, no matter what the count is.’ I didn’t take defensive swings last year, but I found a different freedom in my swing that has helped me generate more power early on.”

Hitting anywhere from fifth to eighth in the lineup during Illinois’ weekend in Fayetteville, Vickery has the full trust of her head coach, who praised her for her changed approach.

“I think she got to a point where she was more aggressive in the Arkansas tournament,” Perry said. “She was taking her cuts early instead of kind of dipping her toe in the water to see if everything was OK. I think she kinda did that against LSU in the LSU weekend, but when she got to Arkansas, she just kinda went cannonball and jumped right in.

“And again she’s so talented that she’s able to do that and be very successful, so I think her approach shifted where she was cautious and hesitant early and as of late, she’s been just reckless, abandoned and just taking her hacks.”

Illinois sits at 6-4 with ranked wins over No. 14 Louisiana State and No. 10 Arkansas already on its resume. The Illini return to action this weekend in Louisville, where they will face Hofstra, Louisville and Western Michigan over the course of two days of competition on Saturday and Sunday.

The Illini will be out of town for two more weekends before hosting a two-game Braggin’ Rights series with Missouri on March 15 at Eichelberger Field in Urbana.

Perry is looking forward to playing in front of the Illini faithful, and she is excited to showcase and shine a spotlight on her redshirt sophomore center fielder once again.

“We got the chance to see the beginnings of her last season,” Perry said. “I think the more she plays, the more data she gets, the better she’s going to become.”



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