Record-breaking Sydney Sickels leads Illinois softball


The Daily Illini Photo File

Pitcher Sydney Sickles leaps while pitching against ISU on April 3, 2019. Sickels set a 21 strikeout record on Feb. 11 this season and continues to dominate the field during her fifth-year.

By Ben Fader, Staff Writer

Program records aren’t meant to last forever. However, they also aren’t meant to be obliterated. Fifth-year pitcher Sydney Sickels is no stranger to dominance on the mound, but in Feb. 11’s game against the Fordham Rams, Sickels was on another planet.

The Illini ace powered her way through all nine innings of the victory, allowing just two earned runs on five hits. While going the distance in an extra-innings affair is impressive in itself, one number in the box score jumps off the paper. Sickels recorded an Illinois record: 21 strikeouts on the day, breaking the previous record of 13, which she had reached multiple times.

The historical performance was a long time coming for the Iowa native, but something she had strived for years before deciding to use her COVID-19 eligibility year to return in 2023. Sickels’ path to etching herself in the record books began long before she would stay in Champaign-Urbana for a fifth season.

“I started pitching when I was like ten or so,” Sickels said. “I had a lot of family that played softball. A lot of cousins. My mom played when she was in college. It was just kind of something that was in the family, so I just ran with it.”

Sickels ran with it through travel ball but was unsure what the future held regarding the sport.

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“I would say the first varsity softball game that I pitched in high school was the moment where I realized this is something I could definitely continue doing,” Sickels said.

Leading Indianola High School, Sickels immediately found comfort on the mound and became opposing hitters’ worst nightmare. The right-hander produced quite a résumé in high school, one she credits to her coach.

“I started working with my pitching coach from high school in eighth grade,” Sickels said. “And he was very detail-oriented in the mechanics of it.”

Sickels prides her health and fundamentals on her work in high school, which got her to where she is today.

Three varsity letters, two-time all-county and conference and one section strikeout title later, an under-recruited Sickels headed off to Champaign-Urbana to join the Illini.

Sickels found early success with the Illini, just as she did during high school. Her impact was immediately noticeable, setting the program record for saves as a freshman on her way to taking home the Newcomer of the Year award.

Three years later, Sickels has almost every individual accolade you could imagine. But, more importantly, she found a home.

“I think the culture that coach Perry has built with this team is something that you don’t find at most schools,” Sickels said. “When COVID happened, I knew that if they were going to give me an opportunity to play another year, I was going to take it.”

Illinois has big aspirations coming off of its best season since 2018 after qualifying for the NCAA tournament and finishing third in the Big Ten conference. However, a disappointing postseason dampened the regular season excitement that had disappeared from the program for a while. With unfinished business hanging in the air, nobody is more determined to improve on the effort than Sickels.

“I just want to win a Big Ten championship,” Sickels said. “That’s our goal. There might be accolades to come along with that, but that’s our main focus right now.”

The Illini are certainly capable with the talent that they have returned. Sickels and the other experienced veterans strive for another top three seed in the conference this year, as well as a second shot at the crown.

No matter what happens, however, Sickels is grateful to call Illinois home and will forever remember her time here.

“I think being a leader on this team, trusting myself and having confidence in myself is something that I think this sport and this program has definitely given me,” Sickels said.

In her four-plus years with the Illini, Sickels has more than returned the favor to both the program and fans who benefit from her performances every time she steps on the rubber. Her strikeout record is just the beginning of her return for a fifth year, with two more months ahead to continue adding to a long list of accomplishments that won’t soon be forgotten.



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