Redbirds Back in Sunshine State for NFCA Leadoff Classic
Feb. 20, 2014
NORMAL, Ill. - The Illinois State softball team (3-6) will play five games as part of the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) Leadoff Classic in Clearwater, Fla., Feb. 21-23. Four of the Redbirds' opponents at the event made the NCAA Tournament in 2013, as their difficult non-conference schedule continues.
ISU begins play on Friday against No. 20/22 Louisiana-Lafayette at 11 a.m., CST, before taking on South Florida at 1:30 p.m., CST. Saturday's slate features contests against James Madison at 11 a.m., CST, and Hofstra at 4 p.m., CST. The weekend concludes Sunday with a game against Connecticut at 10 a.m., CST.
The Redbirds enter the weekend 3-6 overall after going 2-3 at the ASU Littlewood Classic last week. All three losses came at the hands of top-10 teams that also made the 2013 Women's College World Series. Despite the defeats, head coach Melinda Fischer was encouraged by what she saw throughout the weekend, and hopes that the difficult schedule ISU has played will begin to pay dividends this weekend.
"I thought we were competitive," Fischer said. "The biggest thing that we all learned is that, if we execute our game plan, we can stay with anybody in the country. I was extremely proud of the way we competed, fought back and adjusted to the variety of pitchers we saw. We faced a number of powerful offenses that are difficult to contain. I think our pitchers really learned a lot about making sure to hit their spots and making good pitches in key situations."
Scouting the Ragin' Cajuns (6-3-1)
Perennially known as one of the best hitting teams in the nation, the Ragin' Cajuns are off to another slugging start in 2014, despite losing four key contributors from last year's offense. UL is 6-3-1 overall after going 4-1 at their Ragin' Cajuns Invitation last weekend, including a win over No. 4 Michigan. UL enters the weekend averaging 6.3 runs per game and has hit 21 home runs, including a team-best five from freshman Haley Haden. After posting a 2.37 team ERA last season en route to a NCAA Super Regional appearances, the Ragin' Cajuns have struggled somewhat from the circle this year, posting a 4.18 ERA. Junior Jordan Wallace, a Top 50 "Watch List" selection for the 2014 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year, is 3-1 with a 2.67 ERA.
The Redbirds and Ragin' Cajuns split two meetings last season, the first two matchups between the two squads since 1999. UL leads the all-time series, 7-2, and had won six-straight over the Redbirds before ISU beat No. 13 UL, 4-3, on March 3.
Scouting the Bulls (4-4)
Ranked as high as No. 23 in the preseason polls, the Bulls' 4-4 start has dropped them out of the top 25, despite the fact that three of their four losses have come to top-10 teams. USF went 3-2 last weekend at the USF Tournament, which included a narrow one-run loss to Tennessee. The reigning BIG EAST Tournament champions have been led in the early going offensively by sophomore catcher Lee Ann Spivey, who is hitting .381 with two home runs and four RBI. The strength of USF is its pitching staff, which features two-time All-American Sara Nevins (3-2, 2.00 ERA, 39 SO) and sophomore Erica Nunn, who has performed exceptionally in an increased role, going 1-2 with a 0.78 ERA.
Friday'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, which came at this same tournament, thanks to four RBI from Laura Canopy and a one-hit shutout from Regan Romshek.
Scouting the Dukes (5-5)
In his first season as JMU head coach in 2013, Mickey Dean led the Dukes to a program-record 42 wins and its second NCAA Tournament appearance. Picked to finish second in the Colonial Athletic Association, the Dukes bounced back from a tough opening weekend with a 4-1 mark at the UCF Holiday Inn Classic to put them at 5-5 overall entering the tournament. The JMU offense has scuffled a bit to open the year, as the Dukes are averaging 3.8 runs per game and have hit only one home run. Dual-threat sophomore Jailyn Ford leads the way for JMU, as she is hitting .333 with four RBI and is 3-2 with a 1.34 ERA in the circle.
JMU and ISU met for the first time last season, with the Dukes taking a 3-2, extra-inning victory at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex.
Scouting the Pride (0-0, 46-13 in 2013)
Entering 2014 as the reigning Colonial Athletic Association regular-season and tournament champion, Hofstra has yet to play this season due to weather cancelling their slated action last weekend. The Pride went 46-13 last season, but lost four starters from that team, including four-year ace and All-American Olivia Galati, who was 40-12 with a 1.42 ERA last year. Sophomore Maggie Hawkins will be expected to lead the staff after excelling in a limited role last year. Offensively, the Pride returns sophomore Caryn Bailey, who was a NFCA All Region First Team selection last year after hitting .360 with nine homers and 43 RBI.
ISU and Hofstra will play at the NFCA Leadoff Classic for the second-straight year, and third time overall. The Redbirds have won both meetings, including a 3-2 decision last season.
Scouting the Huskies (0-0, 26-27 in 2013)
The Huskies will also be making their 2014 debut this weekend. UConn went 26-27 overall last season, and was picked to finish sixth in its inaugural season in the American Athletic Conference. Senior Maddy Schiappa posted a .320 batting average last season, the highest among returners, while Jacklyn Dubois and Audrey Grinnell hit six home runs last season. Junior Lauren Duggan saw the most experience from the circle last year of any UConn returner, as she went 6-7 with a 3.97 ERA in 20 appearances and 13 starts.
Sunday's matchup between Illinois State and UConn will be the first all-time.
Taking on the Best
Stability In, Inexperience Out
The Dynamic Duo is No More
New Power Source
The Legend Continues
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