Illinois' Hackett hitting her stride
History suggests Illinois sophomore Meredith Hackett should have been terrified the moment she saw the name "DePaul" appear beside Illinois on ESPNU during Sunday night's NCAA softball tournament selection show.
Hackett has faced DePaul in three games in her career. Three games, including once in last year's NCAA tournament, the Blue Demons have defeated Illinois. Three games, DePaul has held Hackett hitless. That's eight times total she's come to the plate and DePaul pitching has retired her.
This time, Hackett has different plans.
It's why she didn't react angrily when she saw DePaul pop up onto the TV screen. It actually thrilled her.
"Oh, yeah, I don't think we wanted a different team," said Hackett, whose team will face DePaul in Columbia, Mo., on Friday. "We lost a heartbreaker to them [earlier this season]. We're going to come back and get our revenge. This is the year to take it to them. We're in no better position to beat them. As a team, we really want it this time around. This time we have a chip on our shoulder."
If Illinois is going to finally knock off DePaul, it will likely need Hackett to do what she's done to nearly every other team, just not the Blue Demons, this season -- clobber the ball.
Hackett has been among the nation's hitting leaders this season with a .418 average, 11 doubles, 15 home runs, 55 RBIs, 33 runs scored and an .816 slugging percentage.
It's the type of year that Illinois coach Terri Sullivan expected from Hackett as a freshman -- but he didn't get it.
It wasn't that Hackett was awful last year -- she was tied for a team-best seven home runs. Still, Sullivan knew she was capable of much more than her .229 average and 21 RBIs.
"From my side of things, it's the mental side of the game where she's improved," Sullivan said. "Her confidence is soaring. She's always had a great swing. It was a matter of her being in charge at the plate. As the season's progressed, she's had more success. I've said this before, but the ball has started to look like a watermelon or a 16-inch softball, a Chicago thing."
The ball began to look larger to Hackett during Illinois' road trip to Florida in March. In five games, she went 8-for-16 with five runs, three home runs and eight RBIs.
"That was the transition for me," Hackett said. "I was being more aggressive. I was thinking, 'I have nothing to lose.' I was just seeing the ball and hitting the ball. You don't want to over-think it."
Hackett carried that mentality into the Big Ten season. Beginning with the conference opener, in which she went 2-for-2 with a home run against highly ranked Michigan, Hackett tore up the Big Ten for 18 games. She ranked in the conference's top five in average (.455), home runs (nine), RBIs (24), on-base percentage (.544) and slugging percentage (.982).
Hackett has always possessed remarkable power. Sullivan fondly remembers standing beyond the center-field fence watching Hackett play in high school -- at Santiago High in Corona, Calif. -- when she crushed a pitch and the ball landed at Sullivan's feet.
Hackett took that ability to another level this year thanks to Illinois' weight room. After never lifting a weight in high school, she now easily presses 45-pound dumbbells and can squat 225 pounds.
"I never thought I'd be able to lift this amount of weight myself," said Hackett, who is one of seven California natives on the team. "I'm strong, but I'm still fast with my hands."
That was evident against Iowa on May 5. With Illinois down 4-3 in the bottom of the seventh inning, Hackett delivered a three-run, walk-off homer that snapped Iowa's eight-game winning streak over the Illini.
"It was so exciting," Sullivan said. "No one remembers where the ball went. It went out of the park so far. A couple of the reporters were saying, 'Right-center.' It went over the top of the scoreboard."
Hackett has been known to put on similar home run exhibitions during batting practice. She's not undefeated, though.
"Everybody looks for me to hit the ball over the fence," said Hackett, whose teammates have nicknamed her Dirty Merdi. "We have some home run derbies sometimes. The first time I lost to Ashley Conrad. She's 5-foot-5. It was really embarrassing. The next time we came out, and I had to beat her because she's my roommate."
Now, her revengeful sights are set on DePaul.
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.