Illinois seniors work toward grand send-off
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - With 104 victories over the previous three seasons and back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, the Illinois softball senior class has earned success on the field since arriving prior to the 2008 season. Being the fierce competitors they are, it's only natural for them to want more in their final year.
As Ashley Conrad, Audrey Gallien, Hollie Pinchback and Danielle Zymkowitz head into their senior seasons with the Illini, these four student-athletes have different personal statements to make while working towards the culmination of their individual desires into one team-wide goal - earning a trip to the Women's College World Series (WCWS).
"In 2011, our team has two expectations: to win the Big Ten Championship and to be in Oklahoma City, Okla., in June [for the WCWS]," Conrad said. "On a national level we have proven that Illinois can be a dominant force year in and year out. Not making it to the Super Regionals would be a disappointment."
At the end of the 2010 season, No. 18 Illinois fell one victory shy of reaching the WCWS Super Regionals, dropping the final regional game to the No. 8 Missouri Tigers in Columbus, Mo. After 53 games, Illinois led the Big Ten in batting average as the team combined for a .322 clip. Their total bases, hits, runs, RBIs, doubles, home runs, slugging percentage, earned-run average and fielding percentage marks all placed the Illini among the conference's leaders. The Orange and Blue also earned the second-highest winning percentage in the nation, a program-best .849 percentage. Though the final stats were impressive, the records and the numbers simply weren't enough for this group. In 2011, they see failure as anything short of a championship, though they understand there is considerable work to be done before making their dreams a reality.
"Our team is really focused on winning the Big Ten," Zymkowitz said. "We know how much hard work it is going to take and we are ready to go after it. I also feel that our team has the capability to compete at the [Women's] College World Series. After losing to a team that made it there last year [in Missouri], we are just dying to get back in that same position to be able to advance into the Super Regionals, but that is looking really far in advance."
The Illini will start with their personal improvements this off-season, as the senior class strives to set the standard for excellence. Gallien, entering her second season as the starting backstop, sees room for improvement as a hitter. In her first season behind the plate full-time, Gallien averaged .288 with 10 doubles, seven home runs and 28 RBIs. The Sunnyvale, Calif., native recorded at least one hit in 32 games in addition to drawing 27 walks; however, she expects improvement at the plate in 2011.
"I would like to see myself have a consistent bat throughout the season," Gallien said. "This entails me stepping up my mental game and not letting failures bring me down. Ideally, I would like to hit over .300 all year and have more RBI's for the team. Judging from my teammates' successes, I feel like a goal of 40 or more RBI's would be a good challenge for me."
Pinchback, who earned All-Big Ten Second Team honors in 2010, finished with a .298 batting average, 10 doubles, nine home runs and 44 RBIs. Despite being recognized by the Big Ten for her contributions to the Illini's impressive numbers, she is also working toward an overall offensive improvement - one season removed from reaching base safely in 42 of 53 games.
"One of my individual goals this season is to get hot and stay hot," Pinchback said. "I do not want to be off and on with my hitting. I want it to stay consistent the entire season."
Zymkowitz, who earned All-American honors in 2009 and is a two-time All-Big Ten First Team member, sees an opportunity to improve on the base paths in addition to being a leader for the Illini as a team captain with her senior classmates. Zymkowitz currently owns first place for career stolen base percentage, having found success in 87.5 percent of her attempts. Zymkowitz also set the single-season steals record in 2010 with her theft of 36 bags, 13 more than the previous mark.
"I want to stay strong and focused when leading the team and continue to work my hardest in practice to be the best player I can be," Zymkowitz said. "I would also like to set a goal of not leaving before the pitch is released."
As a group, the senior class is undaunted by the task of guiding an Illinois team with high expectations. Each senior embraces the captain role without feeling extra pressure to produce results as a player, team leader or mentor.
"I do not feel that it adds responsibility because I believe that our entire senior class has been a great group of leaders since we got to the university," Pinchback asserted. "We have a close-knit group that really understands the game. I feel lucky to have a class that is as close as ours is."
These four senior co-captains combined for a .331 batting average, scored 138 runs, drove in 124 more and slugged 61 extra-base hits in 49 regular season games last season. All four will need to produce at this rate again in order for the Illini to earn a spot among World Series-bound teams and close the 2011 season out the way Pinchback wants to.
"This year we want to take it all," Pinchback said. "We may have had a great record last year but we didn't end our season with a championship ring. That is what we are out for this year."