SJR Column: UIS Baseball and Softball, April 2018
Spring’s arrival at the University of Illinois Springfield brings a collective sense of anticipation – trees and flowers coming to life across a beautiful campus, the countdown steadily ticking toward commencement, and (this year for the first time) Starbucks aficionados of all sorts enjoying their favorite beverage on the outdoor plaza at the new Student Union.
On this first day of April, 2018, there may be nowhere on campus where that sense of anticipation is more evident (or more intense) than at the “TRAC – The Recreation and Athletics Center”. TRAC is home to the Prairie Stars, one of about 300 NCAA Division II intercollegiate athletic programs. The program provides more than 250 UIS student-athletes the opportunity to compete at a high level of scholarship athletics at the same time they can earn a University of Illinois degree and contribute in a variety of ways to campus and community life.
At the helm of the Prairie Stars is Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Jim Sarra who, along with talented coaches and staff, has implemented a “BLUEprint for excellence” to advance the young Prairie Stars program. Their mission is to center the student-athlete experience on academic achievement, competitive excellence, and community engagement.
Shannon Guthrie, head softball coach for the Prairie Stars, can tell you all about excellence! A standout student-athlete at Chatham-Glenwood High School, Guthrie was a star pitcher for Illinois State University where she was named Female Athlete of the Year. She went on to play professionally for the Akron Racers before launching her collegiate coaching career.
“I am a competitive coach and I am here to win championships,” says Shannon, who is in her 4th year leading the Prairie Stars. “That mindset,” she adds, “builds a great and exciting team culture.”
Senior pitcher Ali Haesele couldn’t agree more. Ali was an all-conference competitor at Olympia High School in Minier, Illinois and then played two years for Illinois Central College before being recruited to join the up-and-coming Prairie Stars.
“I’m always working toward something,” she says. “Our team has a championship mindset and knowing I have teammates that have my back and I have theirs – you can’t replace that.”
The team has its sights set on winning the Great Lakes Valley Conference Championship this year and playing in the NCAA regionals. As of this writing at mid-season, they’re ranked second in conference standings and continue to concentrate, as Coach Guthrie says, on “winning each day.” The softball team has also earned the highest team academic grade point average of all 15 Prairie Stars teams for the past two semesters, with a 3.687 gpa (on a 4.0 scale) last term.
Chris Ramirez is a big fan of UIS softball but he doesn’t have much time to attend games. That’s because he’s busy as head coach of the Prairie Stars baseball program– another team that knows a thing or two about excellence.
At Fort Madison High School in Iowa, Ramirez was a two-time first-team All Stater and MVP of the conference his senior year. He was a closer on the mound and outfielder at Kirkwood Community College and then completed his collegiate career at High Point University in North Carolina.
Last year, his 4th leading the Prairie Stars, Ramirez’s team achieved a record 33-win season, had one of the best offenses in the conference, and a record seven players earning All-GLVC selection
“I want our team to play hard, play fast and play for each other,” says Coach Ramirez.
“Our mission is to compete with the top programs in Division II baseball,” he adds, “and every time we take the field we plan on winning.”
Senior first baseman Michael Rothmund, who topped all NCAA Division II hitters in the country last season with 24 home runs, was part of Coach Ramirez’s first recruiting class four years ago. Mike started playing t-ball at age four with his older brother and was a 4-year standout at Willowbrook High School in Villa Park, Illinois. He is “all in” with Coach Ramirez’s approach.
“In my four years as a Prairie Star, I’ve learned you need to be smart on and off the field,” says Mike.
“You never take a day off, you put in extra work to improve, and you care more about the guys on your left and right than you care for yourself.”
Rothmund is proud of what he’s done in the classroom, too, earning a place on the Athletics Academic Honor Roll six of eight semesters. “I feel like I’ve really grown up since I’ve been here,” he concludes.
Just a few days ago, the UIS baseball team climbed into the national rankings for the first time in program history. “We have 13 seniors and it will actually be good if they can’t walk across the stage at commencement,” says Coach Ramirez. “That means we’re playing in the post season!”
Athletic Director Jim Sarra may sum it up best when he says, “Athletics at its roots supports the educational mission of the University, adding to the overall college experience for everyone that gets involved at the same time it strengthens our visibility and reputation.”
You can check out competition schedules, follow progress of UIS teams and learn how you can support the Prairie Stars at: www.UISPrairieStars.com. You can also follow the Stars on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And please consider this your personal invitation to join me on campus for an upcoming Prairie Stars athletic contest. You may enjoy it as much as I do!
Susan J. Koch, Chancellor of University of Illinois at Springfield