NORMAL — The Illinois State softball team led the Missouri Valley Conference in home runs last season with 57.
Melinda Fischer, in her 33rd year as coach, says Redbird fans should expect just as many homers this season even though Jordan de los Reyes has graduated after tying Abby Olson's single-season school record of 19 homers.
"Jordan was our power, but we have people who will respond in that way as well, maybe not individually the same, but collectively," said Fischer, who also expects her team to steal more bases this season.
In the Missouri Valley Conference preseason poll, ISU was picked first ahead of Southern Illinois, Northern Iowa and Drake, all of whom drew first-place votes.
"I think it's going to be a battle," said Fischer of the league race. "I think it's going to be fun. If you look at those top four teams, all of those teams have proven pitchers returning."
A year ago, ISU finished 33-24 overall and shared the Valley title at 20-6. It was the Redbirds' first 30-win season since 2012.
"We hadn't been at the top for awhile and we needed to get back there," Fischer said. "Now I think this team is that next special team that is going to carry us to the next level."
The Redbirds open the season at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Tampa, Fla., against the University of South Florida. ISU returns every starter except for de los Reyes, a catcher, and center fielder Annie Heineman.
"Looking at this team coming back, we're more mature," Fischer said. "We're more experienced. I think we're ready to finish what we didn't feel we finished very well last season."
Last season ended in the National Invitational Softball Championship Tournament with losses to Lamar and Liberty.
"Experiencing the NISC postseason tournament was huge for this group just to understand there is life after the conference tournament," Fischer said. "I really feel this team has all the components to get to the NCAA Tournament."
Among the returnees are four preseason all-MVC honorees in senior pitcher Sarah Finck, junior designated player Shannon Felde, junior outfielder Riley Hale and junior first baseman Allison Spence.
All four earned all-Valley first-team honors last season with Spence, Felde and Hale accounting for a third of ISU's RBIs and runs scored.
The right-handed Finck went 23-13 while posting a 2.54 earned run average. She was 14-3 in Valley play.
"We're going to give her the ball and see what she can do right away," said Fischer, whose roster includes seven seniors, seven juniors, seven sophomores and five freshmen.
Felde, who batted .358, reached base in 23 consecutive games and had a 21-game hitting streak that ranks second in school history. She also went 3-2 as a pitcher.
Last year's leadoff hitter, Hale batted .329 and led the MVC with 43 runs scored. Her 27-game on-base streak ranks fourth in ISU history. Spence (.368) had a Redbird record 527 putouts to go with 15 doubles and seven home runs.
Two Redbirds with Pantagraph area ties are junior pitcher/first baseman Ali Domkuski, a Normal Community High School graduate, and senior infielder Riley Phipps, a former Heartland player. Domkuski went 5-9 as a pitcher last year.
Others who made 12 or more starts are senior infielders Riley Strandgard (.306), Alexa Caliva (.248) and Abby Turczyn (.087), junior outfielder Kori Mesecher (.250), senior outfielder Caitlyn Daly (.227) and sophomore infielder Alyssa Wiebel (.259).
The roster lists five catcher candidates to replace de los Reyes in senior Lauren Prader, junior Ryann Scully, sophomore Annie Borries and freshmen Brittni LaFountaine and Ashley Emert.
Unlike other sports, power five conference teams in softball don't mind scheduling ISU, which has 13 games against top-30 schools. In those games, the Redbirds will face 15 preseason All-Americans.
"I think all of the tournaments we are playing prior to the MVC have at least two preseason top 25 teams," said Fischer, whose home opener is at 4 p.m. March 30 against Indiana State.
Felde, for one, relishes facing the best.
"If we can prove to ourselves that we can compete with those teams," she said, "it's easier for us to compete against Missouri Valley teams."