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Catching up with the record-breaker

Former NIU softball player Jill Coffel owns the Huskie record books and four gold medals

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Posted: Tuesday, April 25, 2006 12:00 am

Jill Coffel was a record-breaking machine for NIU softball in the late 1980s.

By the time her career ended, Coffel owned all but one of NIU's career hitting records.

But in the stat books you'll have to search under Jill Justin, her maiden name, while becoming a three-time First Team All-American.

Coffel is finishing her 16th year as a physical education and health teacher in Alsip, but in her days at NIU Coffel was busy teaching opposing teams how to own the batter's box.

In the beginning, her journey to DeKalb was one of uncertainty.

"Everything came so quick," Coffel said. "I became a senior in high school and colleges were setting up with kids, and I didn't know what to do."

Coming out of Richards High School, Coffel said she received offers to play softball and basketball.

The budding star was in dire need of guidance, and Coffel said then-assistant coach Donna Martin, the current coach of NIU softball, came to the rescue.

When it came down to it, Martin said NIU was just in the right place at the right time.

"In our lineup there was an opening," Martin said. "But she still had to earn it. Our needs ended up being her strengths. She was a Chicago kid, and being close to home was a plus for her."

As good of a hitter as Coffel became, the knock on her coming out of high school was her unorthodox hitting style, said former coach Dee Abrahamson.

Abrahamson and other coaches didn't know if Coffel could make the adjustment to faster pitching at the college level.

"She stood with her feet together and her hands were in the wrong place," Abrahamson said. "But all that came before she launched her bat."

Abrahamson said the best thing she did for Coffel was allow her to just focus on her game and nothing else.

"Most freshmen and sophomores, if they're very talented, coaches try not to put them into leadership roles," Abrahamson said. "Honestly, she probably could have been an All-American shortstop, but moving her to center field allowed her to concentrate more on hitting."

By the end of her sophomore year in 1987, Coffel had become the Division-I batting average champion.

Ending the season with a mind-boggling .503 batting average, Coffel also set NIU season records with 74 hits, 20 doubles, seven triples, 53 runs, an .836 slugging percentage and .591 on-base percentage.

"I knew I had the potential," Coffel said. "Gaining confidence was what it was all about."

The following season Coffel and the Huskies primed themselves to have one of the most storied seasons in NIU athletics history by making it to the College World Series.

Both Coffel and Abrahamson said the squad had an unidentifiable team chemistry that allowed them to overcome all obstacles.

"We were all good friends and there were no cliques," Coffel said. "I used to pick up three-quarters of the team in my big blue station wagon when we went to breakfast."

Though the team didn't have to sit as close to each other while traveling to Florida that year for its Spring Break road trip as they did in Coffel's wagon, they did remain close enough to make a name for NIU softball.

Led by three senior All-Academic All-Americans in Sue Krause, Amy Veld and Beth Schrader, the Huskies lost 1-0 to eventual champion UCLA and 3-0 to defending champion Texas A&M.

Coffel ended the 1988 season as the D-I batting average, doubles and slugging percentage champion. She hit .484 while eclipsing her NIU home run and on-base percentage records of eight and .637, respectively.

The final season of Coffel's career ended in disappointment as the Huskies weren't selected to head back to the College World Series after going 38-7, which was better than their 1988 record of 35-11.

"It was very disappointing to say the least," Coffel said. "I still don't know enough as to why and who they pick. Maybe it was because we almost beat UCLA and they didn't want that to happen."

Regardless, Coffel and Abrahamson said it took a while, but they are both over the NCAA's mistake.

Coffel led the NCAA with eight triples her senior year while recording career highs with 38 RBIs and 38 runs scored.

Coffel went on to earn four total gold medals as a participant on the USA National Team's World Games and Pan-Am Games squads, and the NIU record books say the rest.

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