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Sydney Sickels Hopes To Lead Illinois Into Big Ten's Elite

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(Photo courtesy of Illinois Athletics)

Ask any softball fan to name the best pitchers in the Big Ten, and their list will undoubtedly include names like Michigan’s Meghan Beaubien and Minnesota’s Amber Fiser.

But there’s one pitcher in the conference who has already beaten both of them. That would be Illinois’ Sydney Sickels, who outdueled Beaubien and the Wolverines in Florida on Feb. 28 and then beat Fiser’s Golden Gophers in a run-rule win last Sunday.

Sickels became the Fighting Illini’s top pitcher during her freshman year in 2019, and since then she’s turned herself into one of the Big Ten’s best—for a team that has been badly in need of a dominant pitcher. Since Tyra Perry took over as head coach in 2016, Illinois has consistently put up outstanding numbers offensively, but great pitching has been much harder to come by.

“She’s a very physical player,” Perry said. “She’s a very tall kid, strong legs, so having someone with that imposing physique in the circle who works as hard as she does at her craft, having her has made the difference. It’s everything to have someone like her leading our team.”

The Fighting Illini led the Big Ten with a .318 team batting average in 2018, but their 3.29 team ERA ranked in the middle of the pack, and despite a solid 37-18 record, Illinois missed the NCAA Tournament. The contrast was even larger the following year, when the Illini batted .311 as a team but had a staff ERA above 4.

That team, though, did qualify for the NCAA Tournament, and they had a bright spot in the circle with Sickels. A right-hander from Iowa standing nearly six feet tall, Sickels led the team in every pitching category as a freshman. But she showed there was plenty of room for improvement with forgettable performances against teams like Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan.

“All four of the other pitchers I played with that year were really encouraging,” Sickels said. “They really took me under their wing and showed me how Illinois softball does it, and they pushed me to be my best. That’s really helped me learn to lead the new pitchers we get on our team each year.”

Sickels has also worked with Illini pitching coach Lance McMahon, who doubles as the pitching coach for the Chicago Bandits of National Pro Fastpitch. McMahon helped Sickels fine-tune her rise ball, turning it from what Sickels described as “just kind of a high fastball” into a pitch that starts lower and has more break on it.

Under McMahon’s tutelage, Sickels took a huge step forward in 2020, striking out more than a batter per inning and holding opponents to a .212 average. Her best performance may have been her last, when she entered with a one-run lead and two runners on in the seventh against a ranked Missouri team. Sickels got back-to-back strikeouts to give Illinois the win.

The rest of the season was canceled due to COVID-19 the very next day, but Sickels took the confidence she gained in 2020 and has made an even bigger improvement this year.

“The biggest thing is confidence, in myself and in my team,” Sickels said. “Just really refining my pitches and trusting the changeup, which has really come around this year for me, and I hadn’t had that in the past. That’s been a huge help.”

Illinois went 5-1 in the first weekend of Big Ten play in Leesburg, Fla., highlighted by a doubleheader sweep of Michigan. Sickels defeated Beaubien in the first game 2-1, giving up five hits and striking out nine. She got the save in the second game, pitching a scoreless seventh in another 2-1 Illini win.

After starting 10-2 heading to campus sites, Illinois lost the first three games last weekend at home to Minnesota, including Friday night’s opener in which Sickels allowed five earned runs in five innings. But in Sunday’s finale, she did not allow her team to be swept, tossing a complete-game shutout as the Illini’s bats came alive for an 8-0, run-rule victory.

Illinois is still a young team—beyond Sickels, only senior catcher Bella Loya has significant Big Ten experience. But the Illini still have a potent offense led by Kailee Powell, Avrey Steiner and Jaelyn Vickery. And they now have a true ace in Sickels, who has a strikeout to walk ratio of nearly six to one and an ERA of 0.88.

Catching Minnesota, Michigan and Northwestern will be tough, especially with Illinois already having played two of them, but if any team looks primed to join those three at the top of the standings, it will likely be the Illini.

“We absolutely can continue to turn heads in the Big Ten this year,” Perry said. “We should put together a body of work that warrants NCAA play for us. We’ve been in the tournament over the past few years, and I believe this will be another campaign that warrants that particular opportunity.”

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