Ridgeview High School graduate Lauren Kellar puts down a bunt for Illinois State's softball team. (Photo by B Corbin/WJBC)
By Bryan Bloodworth
Illinois State softball coach Melinda Fischer will be the first to admit things are unsettled as the Redbirds prepare to open the season Thursday against Sam Houston State and Baylor in the Getterman Classic in Waco, Texas.
But they are unsettled in a good way because of the team’s talent and depth.
“We have a lot of flexibility with our depth,” said Fischer, who is beginning her 28th season at the ISU helm and her 29th overall. ‘We have a lot of interchangeable players and a lot of opportunity for switching with positions.
“A lot of it is getting combinations together and we’re kind of seeing who works better with what situation behind what pitcher and who’s going to contribute offensively as well.”
ISU returns seven starters and 14 letterwinners from last year’s 37-23 team that advanced to the NCAA Regional Tournament for the third straight year and ninth time in school history.
Leading the way for the Redbirds will be preseason Missouri Valley Conference selections Lauren Kellar, Jhavon Hamilton and Elizabeth Kay. All three are seniors.
Kellar shifts from left field to center where she earned second-team all-league honors last year after hitting .298 with a .414 slugging percentage and a .368 on-base percentage in 60 games.
The Ridgeview High School graduate, who hails from Colfax, didn’t make an error in 105 chances and led the team in stolen bases with 12.
Hamilton, who served as the designated hitter the majority of the time, also was a second-team all-league performer last year after hitting .304 with a team-high .562 slugging percentage and a .380 on-base percentage. She had team highs in runs batted in (37), runs scored (37) and home runs (12).
Kellar and Hamilton look to be joined in the outfield by Bloomington High School product Nichelle Harrison. The red-shirt junior saw action in 51 games last year, starting 42 times. Other outfield candidates include Kelsey Turczyn, Kaitlyn Knary and Shelby Music.
Kay, who drove in 32 runs and scored 32, will anchor the infield at third base, although she will also see time behind the plate. The graduation of cather Cati Kopp leaves the majority of the catching duties to sophomore Stephanie Gallant.
Olympia High School graduate Laura Canopy returns at first base, The junior earned second-team Valley honors last year by hitting .304 and drove in 24 runs.
Junior Kolby Hoffman and sophomore Lindsey Greene are back for another tour of duty at second base and shortstop, respectively. Red-shirt junior Sara Bradley could see action at all four infield positions. Freshman Brittny Drish (shortstop), sophomore Kara Repp (second) and freshman Molly Cull (third) will be in reserve.
“We bring back a tremendous amount of defense from last year and we bring back a really improved offense,” said Fischer, who has compiled a 922-616-4 career record, including an 881-591-4 record in 27 years at ISU.
The Redbirds’ biggest question mark is on the mound where graduation took standouts Jordan Birch and Megan Warner, who combined for 88 percent of the team’s innings last year.
“We lost some great pitchers in Jordan and Megan, but we have two returning players in Taylor Baxter and Sophia Perez who got some innings last year,” said Fischer. “I think those two are ready to see what they can do now in prominent roles
“In addition, we have Regan Romshek and Erin Rodriguez to help in that spot. We are untested and unproven. That’s something that will be tested right away.”
Baxter is a junior, while Perez is a sophomore and Romshek and Rodriguez are freshmen. Romshek, a Gibson City native, was a proven hitter in high school at GCMS and could see action at first base.
“The fall and tour were great experiences for us,” said Baxter. “Every game we learned something new. I just feel like Sophia and I are ready to go out there and get the job done. And we have Regan and Erin right behind us pushing us and driving us. We just need to be consistent.”
Because the Redbirds return so many starters, they were voted by league coaches as a co-favorite with Southern Illinois to win the regular-season title in a preseason poll.
“That’s really exciting and an honor to the players returning, not to mention an honor to the program,” said Fischer. “It’s interesting that the two teams voted tied for first really don’t have a pitching staff that is returning with a lot. It says what the league thinks about our support players.”
The Redbirds will be looking for their 13th regular-season championship, seventh Valley tournament title, fourth straight NCAA Regional appearance and 10th overall.
“That’s always something we strive for,” said Kellar. “One of our goals this year is to add to that. To get past the regional would be awesome.”
Bryan Bloodworth can be reached at email@example.com