On April 18, 2012, the Illini Club Softball team headed down south to Columbus, GA to play in the National College Softball Association World Series (NCSA).
Senior Tovah Schwartz, the team’s president and coach, said that the team had this tournament on its mind since the beginning of the season.
“Only 16 teams receive invitations to the World Series, and the University of Illinois Club Softball team is the only team to make it to all seven national tournaments in NCSA history,” Schwartz said. “For our team, every practice, every game and every pitch is designed to be a stepping stone towards our trip to Columbus, Georgia. This year, we expect to see past rivals including Miami of Ohio and the Florida Gators at the tournament.”
Schwartz, who has played with the team since her sophomore year of college, said she is proud of herself and her teammates for their success this season because they have worked together. A unique asset of the team is that they are a student-run organization.
“Out of all the teams in the NCSA, we are one of the few elite teams left that still is led by the players, for the players,” Schwartz said. “Other teams have become Division 2 varsity teams with paid coaches and equipment. Year after year, this is becoming the norm, so we are very proud of our success being students. We have an executive board consisting of three student coaches and we make every important decision together. Practice plans, game lineups, traveling information, fundraising ideas—it's all a collaborative effort.”
Alongside Schwartz is Vice President Mallory Weber. Weber, a short-stop, said she is excited for the World Series tournament.
“I am looking forward to getting the chance to bring the National championship back to Champaign,” Weber said. “I love seeing all the competition from across the country.”
The Illini Club Softball team has been playing since the beginning of the school year and has made Nationals a top priority throughout the season.
“Our season starts in September and goes all the way through April. During the fall season, we have to reconstruct our team chemistry and incorporate the rookies into our family,” Schwarz said. “Once that's settled, we focus on winning our conference which consists of Illinois State University, Indiana University, and Western Illinois University. Our toughest series in the fall was against Illinois State University, who has in the last few years become a very talented team.”
The team played Illinois State University at the regional tournament as well. After winning that game, Schwartz and her teammates were ready for Nationals.
“When we won our conference games against ISU that secured our bid to Nationals everyone was really excited,” Weber said. “In the same hand, we come in every season telling our rookies that we expect to go to Nationals. That is the goal we work towards and so far in Illini Club Softball history, we have made it to Nationals every year.”
Sophomore Dana Gawel’s high expectations throughout the season were also met during the Illinois State University game.
“We have worked so hard throughout the season in order to get a bid to Nationals,” Gawel said. “I have never been so proud of this team and winning Regionals shows our hard work has paid off. It was a great tournament to prepare us for the high competition we will see in Georgia.”
In addition to the team’s strong work ethic, Schwartz thinks the team’s biggest strength is the players’ versatile characteristics.
“Our greatest asset as a team is our versatility. As a coach, the hardest task is figuring out the lineup because I can literally put every person in almost every position and they will succeed,” Schwartz said.
Weber agreed with Schwartz and knows that the team’s main goal is to be the best it possibly can be.
“We have really good team chemistry this year,” Weber said. “It is also very important that everyone is available to play multiple positions because you never know who will get hurt or where you will have to play. That is what makes our players so spectacular, everyone can play at least 2 positions. A few girls can even play 4 or 5 different positions.”
The players have been improving their ability to play any position since Regionals, according to Weber.
“We have really worked on heightening our diverse skills- infielders moving to outfield, outfielders moving to infield, and girls who haven't had much experience at the plate have come up swinging,” she said.
Throughout the season, long-term improvements have been made as well. “Our team has improved greatly since our first tournament at the beginning of fall. Everyone has improved their hitting but the biggest improvement has been our defense,” she said. “In the beginning, we were making a lot of errors and now we have cut them down to about 1 a game.”
Gawel said some teams have the Illini have on their minds to beat at Nationals this weekend.
“We look forward to playing the University of Florida and Florida State University since they beat us last year at Nationals,” Gawel said. “However, every team at this tournament will be great competition and if we play to the best of our ability I believe that we can beat any team out there!”
Schwartz said this ultimate goal helps the players see each other as more than just a team.
“This team is where young women come together who by no other means would usually be friends,” she said, “and because of a common goal, we become a family.”