Outfielder ready to turn season around

By Khobi Price

DeKALB — Softball junior outfielder Jessica Rio is looking to redeem herself as the regular season comes to a close.

Rio has experienced more lows than highs during the 2018 season. She ranks No. 14 on the team in batting average out of 15 qualified players with a .143 average.

This drop-off in production follows Rio’s 2017 campaign in which she tallied a .335 average, which ranked No. 2 for NIU.

Rio’s regression in hitting prowess has resulted in her on-base and slugging percentages nearly dropping by half.

Head Coach Christina Sutcliffe said Rio’s struggles have been a significant factor behind the outfielder’s lack of playing time.

“Our players play their way in and out of the lineup on a daily basis,” Sutcliffe said. “I always tell them you earn your playing time Monday through Thursday in practice, and the best nine that match up and give us the best chance to win are going to play. We play the hot bat at this point.”

Rio has appeared in 35 of the Huskies’ 43 contests and only started in 28 of those games. She played in all 54 of the Huskies’ contests last season and started in all but one game.

“I’ve been doing better this year with trying not to let it get to me as much,” Rio said. “When I wasn’t playing I was still cheering on my team. It’s still very stressful, and it does make you get anxiety because you have to make sure you perform.”

Rio credits a recent rule change as a key component in her struggles. At the moment of bat-ball contact, the batter may not contact the pitch when any part of her foot is touching the ground completely outside the lines of the batter’s box, according to the NCAA’s 2018 and 2019 Major Rules Changes for Softball.

The old rule said a batter could have part of their foot outside the box and still put the ball in play.

Rio said the rule change has put her at a disadvantage when she’s at bat because it forces her to change her hitting mechanics. Rio is a slapper, a left-handed batter who runs through the batter’s box as they makes contact with the pitch.

“I think it is harder because they switched the rules this year,” Rio said. “For slappers, it’s hard because you can’t step out of the box at all, and it used to be you could step out of the box. Now I’m getting called out a lot for stepping out of the box.”

Rio said she won’t use the rule change as an excuse for her lackluster play. She’s looking to make the most of the playing opportunities in front of her as the regular season comes to a close and the Huskies gear up for the Mid-American Conference postseason tournament.

“I’m definitely going to take advantage of the opportunity of getting back in,” Rio said. “Owning my spot again and make sure I keep it. I’m very grateful I’m getting the opportunity to be out there.”

The softball team has had a down year for a multitude of reasons. It’s clear the Huskies miss the consistent offensive contributions Rio brought to the team in the 2017 season.

Coaches and teammates said they hope Rio will return to her former glory with more consistent playing time as the season comes to a close.

“I think [the key] for her is to be confident in herself,” said junior infielder Sam Schmidt. “She’s always been someone who’s stood out on the team. She just needs to do what she does.”