Softball team not taking it easy during offseason

Even with the competitive season months away, the Illinois softball team isn’t relaxing this fall.

“Relaxed? What is that?” head coach Terri Sullivan said. “If anything, they’re (fall practices) more intense because there’s a lot to learn and there’s competition at various positions. … You really want to set the tone for what type of atmosphere you want at your practices and our players know that it’s intense and you better be moving and you better be ready to compete.”

After missing the postseason last spring, the Illini hope to get back on track beginning with their fall exhibition season. The Orange and Blue have eight scheduled contests, including an alumni game Saturday, from September to October.

Senior first baseman Meredith Hackett said the players aren’t approaching practice any differently than they would in the spring.

“We set the tone from practice No. 1, and that’s how we’re going to be practicing to the last practice of the season,” Hackett said.

Sullivan said fall is a time for players to learn about themselves and create a team identity.

“Every year your team arrives and you kind of find out who they are and create a chemistry on and off the field,” Sullivan said. “It’s been a really fun fall. I think that the team is working hard and learning a lot about themselves as a team and what we need to work on before spring comes.”

Among the fall opponents are three community colleges and just three NCAA Division I teams: Valparaiso, Loyola-Chicago and SIU-Edwardsville.

Sullivan said the team can only travel on the weekends during the fall, and only gets eight dates to play exhibition games, so most of the games are played at home and against in-state opponents.

She added that the fall provides a great opportunity to play junior colleges that don’t have as many rules against traveling.

“They’re exhibition games anyway, and you should be learning a lot about your team; it doesn’t really matter who you play,” Sullivan said. “We’re excited to be at home. We like to have some of our fans come out and you learn who the new players are. You can really experiment a lot with a lineup and not really make the outcome the sole purpose of what you’re doing out there.”

Sullivan added that she is experimenting with different lineup combinations and plans to employ a more fluid lineup during the competitive season than in years past.

“Our lineup will be different game to game this year depending on who’s producing offensively,” Sullivan said. “You want to create that competitive atmosphere from the get-go.”

Hackett said regardless of last year’s starting lineup, every player is fighting for a spot in these fall practices and exhibitions.

“Coach is always telling us that there’s no spot that’s secure,” Hackett said. “It’s a good place for us to go out and prove what we have with the innings she gives us.”

Senior shortstop Danielle Vaji said the fall season sets the team’s agenda for the winter months.

“It definitely prepares us for our season because it basically tells us what we’re going to be working on for the offseason,” Vaji said. “It helps us find a lineup, where we might need someone to play, where we need to move people around. Just overall it really helps us get to where we need to go.”

While Sullivan and her players treat all practices and games with the same consistent intensity, there will be an opportunity for them to play in a relaxed atmosphere when the alumnae come to town Saturday.

The current Illini softball team will take on members of past teams Saturday at 10 a.m.

As the only head coach in Illinois softball’s 11-year history, Sullivan said she’s excited to see some of her former players return to Eichelberger Field to play, including assistant coach Katie O’Connell and student-coach Danielle Zymkowitz, who just finished a summer playing professionally with the Chicago Bandits.

“It’s an Illinois softball family,” Sullivan said. “I think it’s really important to connect the past with the present, and so we really enjoy having our new players meet former players and I know the alumni look forward to coming back to where they spent some of the best years of their life.”