NORMAL, Ill. - The Illinois State softball team (24-18, 11-6 Missouri Valley Conference) hosts Northern Iowa (21-22, 11-6 MVC) at Marian Kneer Stadium for a three-game series between two squads that enter the weekend tied for third place in the Missouri Valley Conference. ISU and UNI will square off in a doubleheader, Saturday, beginning at noon, before playing a single game, Sunday, which also starts at noon.
Saturday’s doubleheader features Alumni Day at Marian Kneer Stadium, as well as a special recognition of the 1976 Redbird squad that finished seventh at the Women’s College World Series. Following the conclusion of Sunday’s game, the team’s four seniors - Jhavon Hamilton, Elizabeth Kay, Lauren Kellar and Shelby Music- will be recognized with Senior Day festivities.
This weekend marks the final three-game set at Marian Kneer Stadium this season. ISU will host Bradley for one game, Thursday, May 2 at 5 p.m., in its home finale.
Scouting the Panthers
The defending Missouri Valley Conference champions lost eight seniors from last year’s squad that went 38-16 (21-5 MVC), but were still picked preseason by three voters to repeat as champions. The Panthers are peaking as of late, winning seven-straight before falling, 10-1, to Iowa Thursday. UNI enters the series at 21-22 overall and 11-6 in the MVC.
Junior Jamie Fisher, the reigning MVC Pitcher of the Year, has continued to carry the Panthers from the circle, starting 29 of their 43 games and going 17-11 with a 2.09 ERA. Fisher has excelled in conference play, posting a 10-3 mark with a 1.55 ERA in 14 starts.
Jamie’s twin, Nicole, has led the Panthers offensively in her first season after transferring from Kirkwood Community College. She leads the squad in six major offensive categories, including average (.314) and home runs (seven). Senior Haley Krieneris the reigning MVC Player of the Week, after going 6-for-9 with seven RBI and a home run last weekend in a series against Indiana State.
The Redbirds own a 62-17-1 record against the Panthers dating back to the first meeting in 1984. The two squads split a doubleheader last year at UNI before the rubber match was rained out, while ISU took two-of-three from the Panthers last time they met at Marian Kneer Stadium in 2011.
Senior catcher Elizabeth Kayleads the Missouri Valley Conference in batting average (.433), which is also top-25 nationally, and on-base percentage (.544), which ranks top-20 nationally.
Kay also enters the week as the MVC’s all-time career leader with 166 RBI, two clear of Creighton senior Amy Baker.
The Redbird offense averages 5.82 runs per game, the best in the Missouri Valley Conference and top-35 nationally.
The high-scoring Redbird offense is fueled by a MVC-best .291 batting average and .404 on-base percentage. A .393 OBP mark posted by the 1996 Redbirds is the best in program-history.
ISU leads the conference with 197 walks, while Jhavon Hamilton’s 40 and Elizabeth Kay’s 31 rank them first and third in the MVC. Hamilton ranks top-five nationally, while Kay is top-50.
Illinois State is one of the most experienced teams in the Missouri Valley Conference, as 334 of 414 (81%) starts this season have been made by seniors or juniors. Junior Laura Canopy, redshirt junior Nichelle Harrisonand seniors Jhavon Hamilton, Elizabeth Kayand Lauren Kellarhave started every game this season.
Sophomore Sophia Perez’s six saves is a new single-season ISU record. Perez is second in the MVC in saves and ranks top-five nationally.
Jhavon Hamilton has reached base in 21-straight games, a stretch that dates back to March 9. She also became the fifth player in program-history to reach toe 200-hit milestone with a game-winning two-run home run at Wichita State April 21.
Illinois State has played 10 games against top-25 teams this season, winning three of them.
The Beating Heart
As is the case with most good offenses, the heart of the Illinois State batting order leads the Redbirds’ potent attack.
Junior first baseman Laura Canopymaintains the third spot in the order. She is second on the Redbirds with a career-high 42 RBI, while also hitting .376 with a career-best nine home runs.
Senior catcher/infielder Elizabeth Kayleads the Valley with a .433 batting average and has slugged 10 home runs while also adding a MVC-best 44 RBI from the cleanup spot.
In the Redbirds’ 17 conference games, Canopy and Kay have combined to hit .484 with nine home runs, 35 RBI, 36 runs scored and 28 walks.
Hamilton, Kay and Kellar have seen regular playing time in all four seasons, with each starting every game thus far in 2013.
Kay is currently two RBI ahead of Creighton senior Amy Baker for the most in MVC history, with 166. She also ranks top-10 all-time in four other major offensive categories: home runs (third with 43), runs (fourth with 124), slugging percentage (sixth at .562) and hits (sixth with 194).
Kay has also started all 209 games in her career, 14 shy of Kara Nelson’s record 223, with seven scheduled games remaining.
Hamilton’s top-15 rankings include runs scored (second with 150), hits (fourth with 202), RBI (fifth with 117), home runs (fifth with 28), slugging percentage (10th at .537), starts (10th with 201), on-base percentage (13th at .405) and batting average (14th at .322), while Kellar’s 120 runs, 193 starts and 174 hits rank her sixth, 12th and 11th, respectively.
The trio, combined with fellow senior Shelby Music, is the only class in program history to make three NCAA Tournament appearances.
Nothing but the Best
Illinois State continued its tradition of playing a challenging non-conference schedule in 2013, with 15 games scheduled against teams that made the NCAA Tournament in 2012.
The Redbirds are 3-7 this season against teams ranked in the top 25, the most victories over ranked teams since picking up nine in 2007. ISU knocked off No. 22/24 Baylor, 8-0, on Feb. 8, No. 14/17 South Florida, 7-0, on Feb. 24, and No. 13/13 Louisiana-Lafayette, 4-3, on March 3. The victories mark the seventh season in the past nine that ISU has defeated a team ranked in the top 25.
Seven Redbird foes are in this week’s top-25 polls: No. 5/5 Arizona State, No. 7/8 Louisville, No. 9/9 Michigan, No. 14/21 Baylor, No. 18/15 Texas A&M, No. 24/24 South Florida and RV/No. 22 Louisiana-Lafayette.
ISU has been in the “Receiving Votes” category in the USA Today/NFCA Top 25 poll twice this season.
The Legend Continues
Head coach Melinda Fischeris in her 28th season at the helm of the Redbirds, and 30th overall, with a 948-632-4 career-record.
A 2010 National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) Hall of Fame inductee, Fischer ranks in the top-20 all-time for NCAA Division I wins, and is 12th among active coaches.
The all-time winningest coach in Illinois State athletics and Missouri Valley Conference softball history has led Redbird teams to all nine of the program’s NCAA Tournament appearances, including the last three years. She has also won 10 MVC/Gateway regular-season titles and five MVC/Gateway Tournament championships.
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