By Greg Halbleib
NORMAL – Illinois State softball is picked to win what’s expected to be a close race in the Missouri Valley Conference.
The Redbirds were co-champions with Northern Iowa in 2017 but lost in the conference tournament and received a bid to the National Invitational Softball Championship. Coach Melinda Fischer welcomes back all but two starters with four pre-season all-conference selections, first baseman Allison Spence, utility player Shannon Felde, outfielder Riley Hale and pitcher Sarah Finck.
Despite being heavy on experience, Fischer says there are some holes to fill.
“Behind the plate is going to be one of them,” Fischer said. “Losing Jordan de los Reyes as player of the year, you don’t replace that with one person. It’s got to be collectively and a lot of people stepping up. Annie Heineman was our quarterback in center field for four years. You lose that leadership and somebody has got to step up and want to be out there and want to be the person in charge of the outfield.”
Fischer said she likes the way the incoming freshmen have already progressed.
“We’ve made major improvements from where we started this season in August,” Fischer said. “That’s exciting to watch, especially some of our freshmen coming in who have no clue what this is about and really step up and start to mature. I think they’re going to be able to contribute in a lot of ways for us.”
Before the Valley season, the Redbirds are again embarking on a rugged non-conference slate.
“We’re playing 13 games against teams that were mentioned in the top 30,” Fischer said. “Of those games, there are 15 pre-season All-Americans that we’re going to be facing. When you get to go against teams and get to go against players who have been identified as the best of the best right now, I only think that can elevate your play.”
Illinois State softball opens the season at the University of South Florida next Thursday.
Greg Halbleib can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.