Youth movement has Illinois softball back in NCAA tournament

John Supinie

Illinois freshman pitcher Monica Perry thought she had her college plans figured out during her softball career at Union Grove High School in McDonough, Ga.

But mononucleosis sidelined Perry as a senior, and schools backed off. Ready to commit earlier with Kennesaw State, she said, Perry suddenly found herself unwanted.

"It was really bad timing for me,'' Perry said. "When I got sick, (Kennesaw State) didn't offer me any more. None of the other schools wanted me any more. It's like somebody getting injured. People don't want them any more because they don't think you'll come back as strong.''

Perry eventually signed with Illinois, which was looking for a pitcher after a career-ending back injury to Vicky Brown. Behind Perry and a youth movement, Illinois (29-15) this year earned its first NCAA Tournament berth in five years and third since the program began in 2000. The Illini play Missouri (45-9) in a first-round game in Columbia, Mo., Friday in a four-team double-elimination bracket that also includes Bradley (25-26) and DePaul (37-12).

Perry set a single-season school record with 217 strikeouts – easily surpassing the old mark of 182 – while compiling a 24-13 record and 3.96 earned-run average. Perry pitched 236 2/3 innings. The rest of the staff pitched 62 1/3 innings combined.

"I saw Monica play a couple years ago when I wasn't looking for a pitcher,'' Illinois coach Terri Sullivan said. "She had a bad illness and didn't get to pitch much. I was looking through my recruiting notes and remembered who she was.

"She really wanted to succeed. She pitched a lot of innings for us. Monica was excited to come in and have a lot on her shoulders. She liked getting the ball.''

Perry's no-hitter against Wisconsin was the first in program history in Big Ten play.

With Perry on the mound, Illinois has as many as eight players in the field who are freshmen or sophomores.

"All we can do is get better from here,'' Perry said. "With this many young players, it just sets the standard really high for the next few years. We all have high expectations. We're all so young, and we have growing to do.''

Sophomore second baseman Danielle Zymkowitz tied for the Big Ten Conference lead with 48 runs and 62 hits. Her .408 batting average and 20 stolen bases both ranked fourth in the league. In conference play, Illinois led the Big Ten by hitting .305.

"You stay in the moment, but we do have a young team,'' Sullivan said. "We never made that a focus of the year. With that said, the best teams always repeat and repeat going into postseason. That's something we'd like to do.''

After winning a school-record 45 games in 2004, the Illini posted losing records in three of the last four years.

Now, they’re looking to get back to their previous levels of success – and Perry will lead the way.

John Supinie can be reached atJohnsupinie@aol.com.

Tournament trail

Illinois has three teams in NCAA play this weekend.

MEN'S TENNIS: No. 13 seeded Illinois (23-8) faces No. 4 Georgia (24-3) Thursday in a Sweet 16 matchup in College Station, Texas. It's a rematch of the 2007 national title match won by Georgia. The quarterfinals are Saturday with the semifinals Monday and national championship match Tuesday. The Illini won the title and went undefeated in 2003 and also reached the Final Four in 2004. Georgia is the two-time defending national champ.

MEN'S GOLF: While playing in the Northeast Regional at Galloway National Golf Club in New Jersey Thursday through Saturday, the Illini seek their fourth trip to the NCAA finals in nine seasons under coach Mike Small. The Illini are seeded third in the regional, and the top five teams in all six regionals advance to the NCAA championships at Inverness Golf Club in Toledo, Ohio, on May 26-30. The Illini, who won their first Big Ten title since 1988, finished 17th in the NCAA championships last season.

SOFTBALL: Illinois meets Missouri for the first time in softball Friday at 5 p.m. Illinois finished fifth in the Big Ten. The conference sent six teams to the NCAA's 64-team field. During the regular season, the Illini split with the other two teams in the double-elimination bracket, losing 6-2 to DePaul and defeating Bradley 4-0. Said coach Terri Sullivan, "We know about the whole Braggin' Rights thing.''