By Mike Pearson FightingIllini.com
In 1998, when Illinois Athletic Director Ron Guenther announced that women's softball was being added to the University of Illinois athletics' menu, it became the last program among the Big Ten's longtime members to join the party.
Two years after the Illini introduced soccer to its fans, softball became Illinois' 10th women's varsity program, filling a void in a state long known for its girls' fastpitch excellence.
"Illinois is a great softball state," Guenther told the Decatur Herald & Review. "It's in the city, in the suburbs, downstate ... it's everywhere."
The Illini AD's next step was to identify the sport's first Illini coach. Interest in heading up UI's program was significant, but youthful UIC assistant coach Terri Sullivan had been planting seeds about her interest for a while with Guenther.
"I had heard rumors that the University of Illinois would possibly be starting a softball program," Sullivan said. "I began sending letters and Ron was forwarding them on to Karol Kahrs, just letting them know who I was. They always got back to me and always had something positive to say."
Finally, Guenther set up an in-person meeting with Sullivan.
"We were hosting regionals at UIC at the time and I met with Ron in Chicago about the position," Sullivan said. "We talked about what it would take to build a program from the ground up and he mentioned that he wanted a person with a lot of energy to get it off and running. I could tell that he was a coach's coach. And, lo and behold, I got the position. It was exactly the challenge I was looking for. I was just 29, but they had a lot of faith in me."
Sullivan was introduced at a mid-July press conference in 1998, then immediately hit the recruiting trail.
"I remember telling Ron that I had to leave the next day to recruit," she said. "One of the biggest recruiting tournaments for college coaches was taking place in Colorado. Nearly every coach was going to be there. Rick (Raven), our equipment manager, gave me (Illini) polos to wear that were down to my elbows. I remember those first recruiting letters included (the phrase) 'building something from the ground up ... and being the first team to make history'. Our pitch was that you could go somewhere where things are already built or be a part of building something. They had to determine what was the best fit for them. It was a message that I really believed in. Besides talent, we wanted to identify players who were dedicated, coachable, enthusiastic, unselfish, etc. The people component was a big part of it for us."
Another important question the Sullivan had to immediately answer was whether Illini softball would actually field a team during the 2000 season.
"I had brought along Donna DiBiase who had been a player and a graduate assistant at UIC," Sullivan remembered. "We decided that we wanted to play. Illinois had (fielded) a club team for some time and it didn't take long for me to see that those girls were competitors who would run through a wall for you. We had something like 140 kids try out for the team and we picked enough players to play that first season. We just had the time of our lives. It was just an amazing group of young women who were on that team from the club sport and also a few who were originally there for academic reasons but who had played high school softball."
Sullivan was well aware of the extreme talent level that Big Ten softball presented.
"There were some dominant programs in the Big Ten," she said. "Our initial goal was to compete our way into the middle third (of the conference) and then, hopefully, by year three, winning at the upper echelon. Those were lofty goals, but we never wanted to use the youth of our team as an excuse. Everybody knew it; we didn't need to tell anyone. We didn't want that to be a crutch when we took the field. I've always been a big believer in playing a monstrous, aggressive schedule. `That directly comes from my father (former Depaul and Loyola coach and AD, Gene Sullivan)."
Sullivan's 2000 Illini squad posted a respectable 13-17 record and that group was greatly enhanced in 2001 by a 15-person recruiting class that included future stars Amanda Fortune, Lindsey Hamma, Erin Jones, Janna Sartini, Erin Montgomery, Sarah Baumgartner, Katie O'Connell, Lindsey Tanner, Alicia Hammel and others.
"We had some terrifically talented players, players from state championship teams that wanted to be part of firsts," Sullivan said. "That recruiting class just had it in them. It's a prime example of how a together team can really do great things. No team ever intimidated them. It was just really fun to be a part of. If there was a challenge going on and you were playing a team that, on paper, you're not supposed to beat, we always tried to tell our players to be serious but have fun. It's going to be demanding, but we're going to have fun. We're going to be dedicated and disciplined but have fun."
The program's initial monumental victory came on Feb. 23, 2001, when Illinois visited 16th-ranked Florida State.
"Coach (JoAnne) Graf was a Hall of Fame coach at Florida State," Sullivan said. "Before the game, she told me that it was going to take a while, but to be patient and that we'd get there. In talking to the team before the game, I relayed about what she'd said and I tried to create a little bit of fire. Well, we had some real competitors on that team. I remember Katie O'Connell kind of looking at me and saying 'What are we supposed to do for the next four years?' Well, we went on to beat Florida State in that game (1-0 in eight innings) and it really set the stage for what Illinois softball would become ... playing pitch-by-pitch, inning-by-inning, believing in yourself, and having a positive attitude and energy. We did go on to have some success (a 49-23 record) but we didn't get an NCAA bid that year or the next year. We thought we had earned it and had worked hard to be competitive with everybody. The challenges were all fun ones. It's all about the players and any success the coach has comes from them. For me, to be around young people and trying to motivate and inspire them, all of the challenges were worth it."
Years later, Sullivan remains indebted to donors Lila Jeanne "Shorty" Eichelberger and Rex and Alice Martin for their generosity in establishing Illinois' Eichelberger Field and the Martin Softball Complex. The facility debuted on Mar. 27, 2001.
"Shorty was much more than a donor," Sullivan said. "She traveled with us on the road and she became our No. 1 fan. And the Martins ... well, you just couldn't ask for better people for our team to be around."
Sullivan stepped down from her role as the Illini coach following the conclusion of the 2015 season to focus on her family. DePaul's current Assistant Director of Athletics of Academic Advising, wife of former Illini football star and administrator Shawn Wax, and the mother of a 12-year-old daughter and two older stepdaughters, says that the sky's the limit for future softball players.
"The athletes today have incredible access to training facilities and coaches and competition," she said. "My parents always told me that you can't be what you can't see. And now you're seeing women coaching at all levels, both in male and female sports, and the door has been opened for female executives. The opportunities to work, to teach, to coach and then get rewarded for it are tremendous."
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