Steiner keeps it simple as she leads Illini lineup

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Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Junior Avrey Steiner fields a ball during competition. Steiner has been the most successful Illinois softball player so far this season, striking out only twice in 23 plate appearances in Florida.

By Carson Gourdie, Assistant Sports Editor

Patience, but be aggressive. Hit for contact, but smack it if they doubt you. Read the defense, but let the instincts take over. 

Junior infielder Avrey Steiner’s strategy at the plate can be narrowed down to a singular facet: She simply does what’s needed at the time. That approach helped her go 11-22 over the six-game weekend series, jumpstarting a sluggish Illini offense. 

“(Softball) is all situational,” Steiner said. 

The Illini have started the season on fire, going a combined 5-1 in Florida over Rutgers, Maryland and Michigan, with pitching having a major influence on the team’s success. Pitching was good last year, too, but the Illini still struggled to reach .500 before the season ended. This weekend, though, hitting was able to give the pitching staff some wiggle room.

Steiner hit .338 last season, shining bright on a team that struggled to score more than one run during a large portion of the non-conference schedule. A batting average that high is usually the peak for college athletes, but Steiner wasted little time in the off-season to become a more complete hitter. 

“She is a coach’s dream,” said head coach Tyra Perry. “She is very determined, and she comes to practice every day looking to get better in every facet.”

Steiner’s softball IQ — and natural skills — has made her one of the toughest outs in the Big Ten. In 23 plate appearances in Florida, she only struck out twice, but she only walked once. Steiner consistently made contact with the ball, putting pressure on the defense. 

Because of Steiner’s track record — mostly singles — defenses try to stack the odds against her, having the infielders move up on the diamond. What defenses will start to figure out, however, is Steiner’s ability to carry the ball, shown with her triple and double against Rutgers and Michigan, respectively.

When teams start to respect the singles machine, Steiner likes to drop a bunt down to catch napping infielders off-guard. The constant cat-and-mouse game Steiner plays with defenses has kept innings alive, while Steiner gets to act as a liaison for the team.

“It’s more of a trial and error,” Steiner said regarding her approach. “I can see what the pitcher gives up, and I can help observe and relay it back to the team. It can help us make adjustments.”

Steiner’s ability to lead by example has made her a natural leader for the team, as she enters her second season as a team captain. Perry, who has seen tremendous growth from Steiner since her freshman season, has noticed how humble of a player Steiner is despite her success at the plate. 

With a young team that struggles to consistently produce power, Steiner’s ability to get on base at the leadoff position by any means necessary is vital, as she has the gift of being able to manufacture her own run. 

“We teach a system making sure players maximize their god-given talent, (and) she has speed and a high IQ,” Perry said. “Once she gets on base, she can push the envelope and steal and score.”

Though Steiner excels at turning a single into a de facto extra-base hit due to her speed — stealing two bases — the infielder took the role of the clean-up hitter last weekend and drove in a team-high six runs, which helped the Illini blow out the Scarlet Knights and hold off the Wolverines. 

The Big Ten season will be unprecedented, as the Illini will face a conference-only schedule due to COVID-19 protocols. Games against mid-level conferences usually help inflate players’ statistics, but it seems like Steiner really doesn’t need the boost. 

With a current batting average of .500, Steiner’s rate of success is likely unstainable, though it is possible it doesn’t fall too far. A career .302 hitter coming into this season, Steiner’s batting average has gone up each season, as she continues to get more and more confident.

But her goals are more than batting .400; it’s about a positive trajectory and getting on base as much as possible to help out her teammates and harm the opposing pitcher’s ERA. 

“I think every year I get to soak up new information and grow and mature,” Steiner said. “ Playing in the Big Ten gives me a lot of experience and helps me expand my tools. (Being) on base for my teammates when they need me, and coming up big when my team needs me most (is the goal).”

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