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Cross Town Rivals
A new crosstown softball rivalry may be emerging in the Horizon League Conference, and with the two teams’ recent success, there may be more than bragging rights on the line.
The Horizon League is home to two Chicago teams, the University of Illinois at Chicago Flames and the Loyola University Ramblers. The two play against each other a total of six times in two series this season.
Following the end of the 2011 season, the winner between the two teams in the regular season took on more meaning. The Ramblers took the regular season title while the Flames won the league tournament and advanced to the NCAA Regionals.
The Flames and the Ramblers split the season series, each team winning two out of three games played on its home field. With the two teams’ seasons on the latter half of the schedule, The Chronicle took a more in-depth look at both squads.
Ramblers’ Sophomore ace Brittany Gardner has five shutouts this season, four of them against HL opponents as her team looks to build on and surpass last season’s accomplishments.
The Ramblers’ success in the HL and regular season championship did not translate into an HL tournament title last season. Senior infielder Lauren Arceneaux expects her team to take care of business come the 2012 postseason.
“[I expect us] to win the HL Championship,” Arceneaux said.
Although Loyola has only five returning starters and upperclassmen, Ramblers Head Coach Missy Beseres said her team’s biggest strength is trusting each other on the field.
“I think when things are getting tough, they know one person or another person is going to pick them up,” Beseres said.
Loyola’s team, mostly sophomores and freshmen, “gels together so well,” according to Gardner. As of press time, the Ramblers’ defense had a 96 percent fielding percentage while making 627 putouts and only 33 errors.
The Ramblers only have four pitchers on their roster, but the time on the mound is mostly dominated by Gardner and senior Amanda Ciran. The two have combined for 17 complete games this season. Although Ciran has a 2-11 record, her 3.27 earned run average is the lowest on the team.
“You could go [with] either one [of us], and we’re going to do awesome,” Gardner said.
Ciran and Gardner are responsible for 85 percent of the innings pitched as of press time. Gardner, however, is responsible for most of the winning performances. She is 10-6 and has struck out a team high of 99 batters as of press time. Gardner, who tied a Loyola record for most wins as a freshman last year with 14, struggled early on, racking up a 9.24 earned run average through her first eight appearances. She has since improved her play, having a 8-2 record during her last 10 starts and bringing her season ERA down to 3.98.
Six of her 10 wins have come against HL opponents. Gardner has posted a 1.59 ERA in conference play while holding hitters to a measly .175 batting average.
The Ramblers are 8-4 in conference games this season and are currently in second place behind the Valparaiso University Crusaders. With 10 games remaining in the season, Loyola is not looking past any team.
“You have to take it one inning at a time,” Gardner said after shutting out the Flames on April 11. “We have to stay focused.”
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS AT CHICAGO Profile
Last year, the UIC softball team ended the regular season in fifth place in the HL, but that did not stop the Flames from winning the Championship Tournament.
Senior outfielder Melinda Macias expects the Flames to repeat the championship and return to the NCAA regional tournament. This year’s UIC team has 12 returning letter winners and only three new faces.
“We have really good chemistry because we get along on and off the field,” Macias said.
Even though the team is nearly identical to the 2011 squad, the Flames have yet to put all aspects of their game together, which is what it will take to take to win the conference tournament again, according to Macias. She added that the team will also need to make adjustments to the pitcher much sooner in games.
According to Head Coach Michelle Venturella, her team’s defense has been solid this season, but the offense has been stagnant.
“So much of it is about momentum and really just getting something going,” Venturella said. “It’s so contagious. So I think once we get a little bit of that on our side we’ll kind of take off again.”
Although UIC’s .276 batting average this year is third in the HL, her team is in fifth place as of press time with a 4-5 conference record.
The Flames’ two-person pitching staff has an ERA of 3.92, which is sixth in the conference. The two-headed staff is led by junior Devin Miller. Although her ERA is above four, Miller has accounted for 146.2 innings pitched and 125 strikeouts as of press time. She also has three shutouts and 13 complete games pitched this season.
Although UIC is not pleased with its performance so far, the team knows it is capable of executing.
“At points, we’ve seen strengths at all parts,” Venturella said.
Following its weekend series with the University of Detroit Mercy Titans, the Flames will have 12 conference games remaining to get it right. Venturella wants her team to compete consistently the rest of the season.
“I think it’s important to be a good competitor and respect the game and show up every single day and play the game between the lines,” she said. “That’s really the expectations, and I think when we do that, we play pretty good ball.”