Veteran experience returns for Illinois softball

Current+fifth-year+senior+Sydney+Sickels+pitches+against+Penn+State+on+May+7%2C+2022.+Last+season%2C+Sickels+led+the+Illini+in+innings+pitched+and+ERA%2C+creating+a+hopeful+outlook+for+this+season.

Sidney Malone

Current fifth-year senior Sydney Sickels pitches against Penn State on May 7, 2022. Last season, Sickels led the Illini in innings pitched and ERA, creating a hopeful outlook for this season.

By Ben Fader, Staff Writer

As students begin to settle in for the 2023 spring semester, spring sports teams continue to prepare for the quickly approaching season. Illinois softball debuts in less than a month, with its Feb. 10 opening tournament in Clearwater, Fla.

The Illini are coming off of a season where they finished 34-22 and 15-7 in conference play, which is their most conference wins in a season since 2010. The 2022 squad’s impressive record paved the way to Illinois’ fourth NCAA tournament appearance in seven years.

The team is poised to not only solidify the program as NCAA tournament regulars in 2023 but also make a run deeper than it has in years past. The Illini will return eight of their top 10 starters in the field from last year and all three of their main pitchers. While the returning nucleus is deep and experienced, a few players stand out who can take this team to the next level.

Fifth-year second baseman Avrey Steiner is statistically the best returning hitter. Steiner hit .391 in 2022, tallying 77 hits, which is the second most all-time in a single season in Illini history. She has improved each year as an Illini and is an on-base machine at the top of the lineup.

In preseason rankings, Steiner was also ranked as the No. 14 second baseman in the country.

Senior third baseman Delaney Rummell is the main power threat in the lineup. What she lacks in average, she makes up for with production, as Rummell led the team in home runs and finished second in RBI and slugging percentage. Her numbers slipped a little in 2022 with a slight increase in workload, but the senior is capable of doing damage for the Illini and can win them ball games.

With Steiner and Rummell ready for big seasons at the plate, the pitching staff has some equally talented players who can limit opponents while the offense puts up runs.

Fifth-year pitcher Sydney Sickels led the team in most pitching statistics, but most importantly in innings pitched, ERA, batting average and strikeouts. The ace of the team, Sickels pitches whenever her arm allows, appearing in over half of the teams’ games last year. When the Illini have success this season, Sickels is sure to be in the middle of it, especially if she improves on an already impressive 2.13 earned runs allowed per game.

Sophomore Lauren Wiles and junior Tori McQueen round out the rest of the staff, as the two were impressive in their own right. Helping the trio combine for a sub 2.50 ERA, they should be atop the conference as a group now with each one’s experience.

In addition to returning stats, the Illini added four freshmen, including infielder Adisyn Caryl (No. 44 in Extra Innings recruiting rankings) and infielder Eileen Donahue (No. 54 in Extra Innings recruiting rankings). The freshmen will provide great depth to an already deep infield unit and add talent on the bench to replace injuries or pinch hit in big moments.

There isn’t much time before Illini fans will get to see the improvement of returning starters, as the competition will heat up immediately. The NFCA Leadoff Classic in Florida will host three Power Five opponents in the first week. The tournaments will get the Illini warmed up before their home debut on March 15 where they host Valparaiso at Eichelberger Field.

 

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