Redbirds Open 2014 Campaign with Challenging Tampa Slate

Feb. 6, 2014

Week 1: USF-Wilson DeMarini Tournament | feb. 7-9
Location: Tampa, Fla. (USF Softball Stadium)
Friday 2/7: vs. No. 4/3 Florida | vs. Bethune-Cookman
Saturday 2/8: vs. Wisconsin | at No. 25/23 South Florida
Sunday 2/9: vs. No. 5/4 Michigan
Game Notes: Game Note Central
Live Stats: Tournament Central
Tiwtter: @ISU_Softball

NORMAL, Ill. - The Illinois State softball team will begin its 2014 season with five games at the USF-Wilson DeMarini Tournament, Friday through Sunday in Tampa, Fla.

The season begins with games against No. 4/3 Florida and Bethune-Cookman at 10 a.m., and 2:30 p.m., CST, Friday. On Saturday, the Redbirds will square off with Wisconsin and No. 25/23 South Florida at 12:45 p.m., and 5:30 p.m., CST, before concluding the weekend with a matchup against No. 5/4 Michigan, Sunday at 8 a.m. CST.

The Redbirds return six starters from last year's 28-20 squad that missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009, including five seniors. Still, with the tough competition, inexperience in some areas, and disadvantage of practicing and playing outside for the first time since the fall, 29th-year head coach Melinda Fischer is judging her team this weekend on more than wins and losses.

"We'd like to see some consistency with positive things," Fischer said. "If you do something well one inning, you continue to do it the second opportunity. We're going to have to be able to string some quality at bats back-to-back to score some runs. We'd also really like to see some solid pitching in the circle."

Slap Hits

  • The Redbirds return six starters from last year's squad that finished 28-20 overall and 13-7 (third place) in the Missouri Valley Conference.
  • ISU has been to the NCAA Tournament in three of the last four seasons, but did not receive an at-large bid in 2013 despite going 8-9 against teams that were included in the field of 64.
  • Illinois State was selected second in the Missouri Valley Conference preseason poll. This marks the first time since 2010 that the Redbirds did not accumulate at least a share of first place.
  • Three Redbirds - senior pitcher Taylor Baxter (15-8, 3.15 ERA in 2013), senior first baseman Laura Canopy (.352, 10 HR, 44 RBI) and redshirt senior outfielder Nichelle Harrison (.340, 15 RBI) - were tabbed as pre­season all-conference selections.
  • Five players started all 48 games for Illinois State last season, only two of whom (Laura Canopy and Nichelle Harrison) return in 2014. Gone are MVC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kay, All-MVC First Team selection Jhavon Hamilton and All-MVC Second Team choice Lauren Kellar.
  • ISU's 55-game schedule features 20 games against teams that made the NCAA Tournament in 2014. Five of the eight Women's College World Series participants - Florida, Michigan, Washington, Arizona State and defending national champion Oklahoma - highlight the slate.

Scouting the Gators

The Gators are coming off a 2013 season in which they went 58-9 (18-6 SEC) and advanced to the Women's College World Series for the fifth time since 2008. UF also won both the regular-season and tournament crowns in the SEC, and lost only two letterwinners from that squad. Picked as the favorites again in the SEC, the Gators will be led by a pair of NFCA All-Americans. Senior pitcher Hannah Rodgers led UF last season from the circles, going 33-7 with a 1.71 ERA. Junior Lauren Haeger made an impact pitching as well, going 16-2 with a 2.35 ERA, while also leading the team with 18 home runs and 70 RBI.

The Redbirds lead the all-time series with the Gators, 2-1. ISU beat UF twice in 2007 before falling in the most-recent meeting in 2012, 11-0. A trio of current seniors played large roles in that game, as Taylor Baxter took the loss for ISU while Lauren Haeger homered and Hannah Rogers earned the victory for the Gators.

Scouting the Wildcats

Eight-time MEAC-champion Bethune Cookman went 18-35 overall last season, but peaked towards the end of the campaign, going 11-3 in conference play. The Wildcats lost two of their best bats to graduation, but return Calesha Shelley, who hit .303 and stole 29 bases as a sophomore in 2013. The BCU pitchers labored to a 4.49 team ERA last year, but will rely on the experience of senior Shanel Tolbert, who appeared in 47 contests and made 40 starts last year.

Friday afternoon's contest between the Redbirds and Wildcats will be the first all-time.

Scouting the Badgers

The Badgers are coming off one of the best seasons in program-history, as they won their first-ever Big Ten Tournament title and advanced to the championship game of the Eugene, Ore., NCAA Regional. UW lost nine letterwinners, but returns numerous key players. Offensively, senior Mary Massei is expected to lead the way after hitting .421 with eight home runs and 38 RBI last season to earn NFCA All- Great Lakes Region Second Team status. In the circle, senior Cassandra Darrah returns to lead the pitching staff after going 27-7 with a 1.82 ERA in 2013, while also earning all-region accolades

ISU and Wisconsin have not met since 2004, when the two squads played twice in Tempe, Ariz. Despite the Badgers winning both of those matchups, Illinois State leads the all-time series, 3-2.
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Scouting the Bulls

The Bulls won their first ever BIG EAST Tournament crown last season before advancing to the NCAA Tournament and finishing with a 45-16 overall record. Eight position starters return, including senior Kourtney Salvarola, who led the Bulls with a .331 average, 13 home runs and 43 RBI. USF posted a superb 1.34 team ERA, led by two-time all-american Sara Nevins (26-9, 1.20 ERA).

Saturday's meeting between Illinois State and South Florida will mark the seventh-consecutive season that the two teams have squared off. The Bulls lead the all-time series, 7-2, but the Redbirds took the 2013 meeting thanks to four RBI from Laura Canopy and a one-hit shutout from Regan Romshek.

Scouting the Wolverines

Michigan made its 10th trip to the Women's College World Series in 2013, ultimately finishing with a 51-13 overall record. U-M also went 20-2 in the Big Ten to earn the regular-season crown. Expectations are high again for the 2014 campaign, as the Wolverines lost only four letterwinners and two starters from last year's squad. Sophomore Sierra Romero won the Big Ten Player of the Year award in 2013 as a freshman after hitting .379 with 23 home runs and 71 RBI. U-M also returns its dynamic pitching duo of juniors Sara Driesenga (31-9, 1.89 ERA) and Haylie Wagner (19-3, 2.50 ERA).

The Redbirds and Wolverines played two classics last season, with Michigan winning both to take the all-time series lead, 5-3. On Feb. 22 in Clearwater, Fla., the two teams battled for 10 innings before U-M secured an 11-9 victory. Then, on March 9 in Louisville, Ky., Michigan broke a 1-1 tie in the top of the seventh inning to earn the win.

Some Fresh Faces, Some Old

  • The 2014 Redbirds are unique in that the squad's experience levels are segregated by position groupings.
  • All four infield starters - Laura Canopy, Kolby Hoffman, Brittny Drish and Sara Bradley - return from the 2013 squad. That quartet combined to start 174 games last season.
  • Conversely, ISU's outfield enters 2014 with little experience. The same three players - Jhavon Hamilton, Lauren Kellar and Nichelle Harrison - started every game in the outfield last season. Only Harrison returns this year, while the other outfielders on the roster have a combined 53 career appearances.
  • Pitching will be another area of experience, as the Redbirds return 92.4-percent of their innings pitched last season.

The Dynamic Duo is No More

  • Last season, catcher Elizabeth Kay and first baseman Laura Canopy formed the most potent offensive duo in the Missouri Valley Conference.
  • Both players tied for the league-lead with 44 RBI and hit a team-best 10 home runs on their way to NFCA All-Mideast Region First Team honors.
  • Kay, who won the MVC Player of the Year Award, graduated, leaving Canopy to fulfill a much larger offensive role.

Senior Laden

  • The 2014 Redbird roster features five seniors - Taylor Baxter, Sara Bradley, Laura Canopy, Nichelle Harrison and Kolby Hoffman, which marks the most seniors on a squad since the 2005 Redbirds had six.
  • The group has combined to appear in 617 games and make 545 starts over the last three seasons. Over that time, ISU has won 101 games, made two NCAA Tournament appearances and won both a MVC regular-season and tournament title.

Power Outage

  • Illinois State tied for third in the MVC with 37 home runs last season, but succeeded offensively in a variety of areas to the tune of a league-best 5.56 runs per game.
  • Offensive versatility will be vital again in 2014, as the Redbirds graduated players who hit 48.6-percent of their home runs last season.
  • Senior Laura Canopy, who tied for the team-lead with 10 long balls last season and ranks 14th in program-history with 17 in her career, will be expected to lead the way again in 2014. No other Redbird on the roster has more than seven career home runs.

The Legend Continues

  • Head coach Melinda Fischer begins her 29th season at the helm of the ISU softball program, and 31st as a head coach, this weekend.
  • Fischer has posted a 909-611-4 record during her tenure at Illinois State, making her the winningest coach in ISU Athletics and MVC softball history.
  • Her 950 career wins overall rank her 18th all-time nationally among DI coaches, and 11th among active coaches.
  • Fischer also played softball at ISU, and helped lead the Redbirds to a second-place finish at the AIAW Women's College World Series in 1969.

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