Illinois softball to rely on pitching, defense

One of the high points of the Illinois softball team’s season last year was breaking the school record for double plays turned in a season. With a majority of the starting position players returning, defense is sure to be a strength for the Illini as they look to make a dent in the Big Ten this year.

The Illini have both middle infielders, junior second baseman Allie Bauch and sophomore shortstop Ruby Rivera, returning to be the foundation of one of the top defenses in the Big Ten.

Bauch, along with her teammate and fellow junior outfielder Kylie Johnson, are coming off a sophomore campaign that ended with NFCA All Midwest Region team honors. Bauch and Johnson also bring some potent offense to the table. Both are left-handed hitters, who can put the pressure on opponents.

Johnson and Bauch hit .387 and .343 respectively last season, contributing 37 of the teams 207 RBIs last season. Johnson is more of a hit-for-contact player, while Bauch supplied more power to the lineup. Bauch had a team-leading .547 slugging percentage.

The Illini posted a 24-26 record last season, going 7-16 in the Big Ten. With key individuals returning, head coach Terri Sullivan believes that knowing what’s in-store throughout the season is sure to be an advantage.

“We play a tough schedule against tough teams,” Sullivan said. “We are more experienced this year and experience is what you need to compete with the tough teams.”

The Illini’s biggest shoes to fill this season are those of former outfielder Alex Booker, who graduated in May. During her career, Booker posted the sixth-best career batting average (.327), fifth-most stolen bases (44) and eighth-best on base percentage (.388) in Illinois history. Booker is now a graduate assistant at Texas A&M-Commerce.

Johnson and returning sophomore outfielder Nicole Evans look to fill the offensive and defensive gap Booker left, and Sullivan knows the two are up for the task.

Besides the defense, another big strength for the Illini this year will come from the circle. The pitching staff added a few pieces, as well as strengthened others. The team has four pitchers and all look as if they will have significant impact this year. The Illini’s ace is senior Shelese Arnold.

“We are not just seeing a girl and her pitches out there now,” Sullivan said. “We are seeing a sort of mental toughness about her that wasn’t there before.”

The Illini also return sophomore pitcher Jade Vecvanags, who made 15 pitching appearances as a freshman.

Two newcomers have joined the Illini pitching staff this season. One is freshman Kate Giddens, of Georgia, who will also serve as a utility fielder. Sullivan is looking to Giddens, a four-sport athlete in high school, to make an impact on the game with her athleticism.

The other new pitcher is sophomore transfer Breanna Wonderly out of Heartland Community College in Normal, Illinois. Sullivan praised the presence of Wonderly, a pitcher who knows what her strengths are and trusts her defense, what Sullivan believes to be a perfect fit for this Illini team.

Last season saw the Illini jump out to an 8-0 start, the best in program history, but the team was unable to hold that pace through the Big Ten.

With experience on their roster, the Illini look to produce the same early success continuing throughout the entire season.

Cole can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @cole_Henke.