Freshman pitcher hits her mark early

By JJ Kim, Staff writer

Prior to her first tournament as an Illini, freshman pitcher Sydney Sickels didn’t feel the nerves which usually come the first season.

Even the star seniors on the team, like center fielder Kiana Sherlund, spoke of the anxiety she feels prior to the first tournament every season.

“One of our freshman said to me, ‘Man, I’m so nervous for this weekend,’” Sherlund said. “She said that as if I was supposed to tell her not to be nervous, but I looked at her and said, ‘I’m nervous too.’”

Sickels said she felt surprisingly calm thanks to the tight team chemistry the Illini built throughout the fall. When the first tournament commenced, it was clear she was ready for the moment.

She pitched two innings and faced five batters in Illinois’ first tournament game against No. 22 Oklahoma State. Without blinking, she struck out two and didn’t allow a single earned run as the Illini started the year off with a 7-4 victory.

“Going in the first game and seeing that I was competing against the other teams, that was (when I knew I fit in),” Sickels said.

The following game, a battle against No. 13 Kentucky would be Sickels’ first tournament start. Despite the stakes being higher than her last game, Sickels pitched another solid game against a top-15 opponent.

She threw eight innings with six strikeouts and only allowed four earned runs against the 39 batters she faced as she notched her first career victory with a 6-5 victory. Although she gave up two home runs, her cool mentality allowed her to move on quickly from the setbacks.

“If you were to watch her pitch, you wouldn’t know if she had just struck everyone out or if she was struggling,” said head coach Tyra Perry.

The intangibility and adaptability Sickels showcased gives a look into why Perry and her staff recruited her in the first place.

Perry noted the elite-level break Sickels had on the ball when she was scouting the Indianola, Iowa, native. Although her speed was questionable, the coaching staff knew they could increase her velocity once she came to town.

Perry also mentioned the rarity of seeing a freshman who has the ability to block out external factors and focus solely on the game as Sickels does.

“She’s basic.What you see is what you get with her,” Perry said.

Illinois’ older players have also expressed how impressed they are with Sickels and some of the other freshmen in their ability to fit right in without a hitch.

“Right when our freshmen came in the fall, they made an impact immediately,” Sherlund said. “They didn’t skip a beat in practices. Our practices are super high paced, and it’s really easy to get lost.”

The bond the players on the team share has contributed to both the team’s success and the success of young players like Sickels.

Although she said she believes she’s naturally a calm person, Sickels attributes a lot of her success to the mentorship of the senior pitchers.

The way the seniors carry themselves as players shows the young freshman what it takes to be a great player. Sickels said the impression she got from her teammates was to give nothing less than “110 percent” effort in every aspect of the game.

When she first arrived in Champaign, Sickels wasn’t sure she’d be able to match up toe-to-toe with the top-notch college talent the Big Ten has to offer.

“I’m generally a calm person, but the seniors also helped, especially the senior pitchers,” Sickels said. “At first, I wasn’t so sure how I would compare to everyone else, but the coaches made sure that I knew that I could be a competitor as long as I worked hard.”

The coaches and the team fit were what drew Sickels to the Illini in the first place, and she hasn’t looked back.

“It was about the people. It was all about the people,” Sickels said. “I really like how we’re all just so close. I wasn’t expecting that. We have some fifth years, and so you’re not expecting to be as close with them as the freshmen are.”

Now three tournaments into her career, Sickels has become the workhorse pitcher for the Illini. She’s accrued a 6-2 record so far and leads the team in innings pitched, strikeouts and opponent batting average. Her 3.58 ERA is also second on the team, only behind senior Emily Oestreich’s 3.50 ERA.

Coming up, Sickels and the Illini will take on Northern Iowa, Tulsa, Seattle and Syracuse in Tulsa and Oklahoma on Friday.

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