Redbirds Back in Sunshine State for NFCA Leadoff Classic

Feb. 20, 2014

16
Week 3: NFCA Leadoff Classic | feb. 21-23
Location: Clearwater, Fla. (Eddie C. Moore Complex)
Friday 2/21: vs. No. 20/22 Louisiana-Lafayette (11 a.m. CST) | vs. South Florida (1:30 p.m. CST)
Saturday 2/22: vs. James Madison (11 a.m. CST) | vs. Hofstra (4:00 p.m. CST)
Sunday 2/23: vs. Connecticut (10 a.m. CST)
Game Notes: Game Note Central
Tournament Central: NFCA.org
Tiwtter: @ISU_Softball

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."

Slap Hits

  • All six of ISU's losses this season have come to teams that made the NCAA Tournament in 2013, including five against top-10 teams and 2013 Women's College World Series participants.
  • The Redbirds have committed just four errors in their first nine games, fewest in the Missouri Valley Conference.
  • Senior Kolby Hoffman leads the team with two home runs, which matches her career-high, and seven RBI, which are nearly half of what she had last year in 43 games (15).
  • Redshirt senior outfielder Nichelle Harrison has not committed an error in the last 69 games (4-22-12 at Bradley), a stretch that includes 84 chances.
  • The Redbirds have started the same infield - Laura Canopy (first), Kolby Hoffman (second), Brittny Drish (short) and Sara Bradley (third) in 30 of the last 31 games, and in eight of nine games this season.
  • The Redbirds returned six starters from last year's squad that finished 28-20 overall and 13-7 (third place) in the Missouri Valley Conference.
  • Now in her 29th season at the helm of ISU, and 31st overall, head coach Melinda Fischer ranks 18th all-time among DI coaches with 953 wins.
  • ISU has been to the NCAA Tournament in three of the last four seasons and nine times overall, but did not receive an at-large bid in 2013 despite going 8-9 against teams that were included in the field of 64.
  • Five players started all 48 games for Illinois State last season, only two of whom (Laura Canopy and Nichelle Harrison) returned in 2014.

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

  • Of Illinois State's six losses this season, five have come against top-10 teams and squads that made the 2013 Women's College World Series.
  • In those five games, the Redbirds have scored 2.4 runs per game, hit .143 and posted a 7.23 ERA.
  • In its other four games, however, ISU has performed much better, scoring 5.25 runs per game, hitting .269 and tallying a 2.59 ERA.

Stability In, Inexperience Out

  • 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 - returned from the 2013 squad. That quartet combined to start 174 games last season, and has started 30 of the last 31 games together.
  • Conversely, ISU's outfield entered 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 returned this year, while the other outfielders on the roster entered with a combined 53 career appearances.
  • Through nine games, the Redbirds have utilized four different starting outfield combinations, while a total of seven players have seen action in the outfield.
  • Pitching is another area of experience, as the Redbirds returned 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.
  • Through nine games, Canopy leads the Redbirds with a .261 batting average and .452 on-base percentage, but has just one RBI and no home runs.

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 658 games and make 586 starts over the last three seasons. Over that time, ISU has won 104 games, made two NCAA Tournament appearances and won both a MVC regular-season and tournament title.

New Power Source

  • Entering the 2014 season, lack of power projected to be a potential issue for ISU, as the Redbirds graduated players who hit 48.6-percent of its home runs last season.
  • The main source of returning power was 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. No other Redbird on the roster, however, entered the season with more than seven career home runs.
  • ISU has still been able to hit six home runs, though, thanks to unexpected contributors. The six long balls have been hit by four different players who combined to hit three homers last year.

The Legend Continues

  • Head coach Melinda Fischer is in her 29th season at the helm of the ISU vsoftball program, and 31st as a head coach.
  • Fischer has posted a 912-617-4 record during her tenure at Illinois State, making her the winningest coach in ISU Athletics and MVC softball history.
  • Her 953 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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