As the 2018 Illini Softball Season approaches, TCR will be providing in-depth coverage on what is sure to be yet another NCAA Tournament-bound team. This preview is just the start of what we hope is some of the best Illini Softball coverage around!
Head Coach Tyra Perry lost several cornerstones of her 2017 team to graduation, but she retains a promising core of young talent, along with several promising freshmen who will hopefully bolster the lineup and lead the Illini on a path to success.
In 2017, the Illini went 39-20, their fourth-best season in program history. The team reached the NCAA tournament regionals, eliminated by Kentucky in the Lexington regional.
They finished fourth in the Big Ten with a 14-8 record in conference play. Throughout the season, Illinois received AP top 25 votes for the first time since 2011.
Senior Nicole Evans finished out her Illini career by setting records for career home runs, RBI, total bases and slugging percentage.
Key players in 2018
Annie Fleming, IF
Fleming, who mainly played third base for the Illini last season, was a huge asset, hitting .347, with 6 HR and 36 RBI. As a senior, she is expected to continue her growth into 2018 and develop into a formidable team leader. Fleming, who often hit out of the 6-hole last season, will likely be moved around a bit to start the season, as the Illini’s 2-3-4 combo of Gunther-Rivera-Evans graduated.
Taylor Edwards and Erin Walker, P
With the tremendous loss of Breanna Wonderly, who pitched nearly 240 innings last season, these two are the next in line to step up for the Illini.
Edwards managed a 2.67 ERA in 91.2 IP last season, but she needs to lock down slightly better control, as she had 32 BB as opposed to 27 SO last season. As a junior, Edwards will likely be the next person the Illini turn to in order to fill the gaping void left by Wonderly.
Erin Walker is the other pitcher Perry will expect to step up to fill that void. She will be a senior this year, and she will be a second year member of the Illinois squad. Last season she had four starts and 22 appearances, ending the season with a 3.37 ERA. If her and Edwards can step up their upperclassmen games, the Illini will hurt much less with the loss of Wonderly.
Kiana Sherlund, OF
Sherlund was an extremely valuable asset to the Illini in 2017, hitting .343, with 2 HR and 22 RBI, while stealing 22 bases. She played 58 out of 59 games for the Illini last season, mainly in CF. She also hit leadoff, and played an integral role in a deadly lineup.
If Sherland can continue to make good contact with the ball, and increase her walk rates, she can once again be a threat at the top of the lineup and on the bases for the opposition in the B1G.
Stephanie Abello, C
Abello was a force to be reckoned with in the Illini lineup last season, hitting .307, with 13 HR and 41 RBI in 58 games. Abello also had a .973 fielding percentage, and threw out 18 of 47 runners trying to steal, which put her second in the B1G for caught stealing percentage. As a junior, she will be one of the ones tasked with replacing the lost offensive production, and will be expected to flash some leather on defense.
Maddi Doane, OF
Doane played in 58 out of 59 games last season for the Illini, mainly in RF. She hit .297 with 28 RBIs and 9 SB. Doane, as a senior, will also be counted on to step up her production at the plate. She will also be expected to up her presence on the basepaths, as a speedy combo of Doane and Sherlund would certainly be a threat to opposing teams.
If the Illini want to build on their 2017 campaign, they have to go better than 25-12 out of conference. Luckily for them, the schedule is fairly friendly this season, but games early on like UCF, Louisville and North Carolina (x2) are matchups that this team has to win in order to secure being a host in the NCAA tournament.
The Illini get lucky in conference play, as they do not play Michigan or OSU this season. Unfortunately, they also only play powerhouse Minnesota on the road, so this team will have to really push above and beyond. Overall, in 50 regular season games, it should not be unreasonable to expect 35 wins from this team prior to tournament season.