CHARLESTON — A caller to a Champaign radio sports talk show last week couldn’t believe how Hanna Mennenga got away from the University of Illinois.

This was for Illinois fans to take watching some kid from Rantoul High School pitch Eastern Illinois to a 12-1 softball win over their Illini when striking out 12 batters with a two-hitter in the five-inning mercy rule game.

Maybe they were better off not knowing that Mennenga’s mother’s maiden name is Eichelberger, just like the Illini’s Eichelberger Field named in honor of donations from Paul and Jeanne.

“I think it’s my grandpa’s cousin,” Mennenga said.

What this descendent may have done this year is pitched her way into that select category of athletes having folks wondering why he or she is only at that mid-major in Charleston.

“Not so much,” Mennenga said of hearing the question directly, “but I did see somebody put on Facebook and wrote about me: ‘Yeah, why doesn’t Illinois have her?’ But I couldn’t be prouder to be here.”

Illinois cannot be blamed for being the only program that didn’t realize this girl down the road would emerge into the pitcher ranking second in NCAA Division I with 11.4 strikeouts per seven innings while also leading the Ohio Valley Conference with a 19-4 record, 1.30 ERA and six shutouts going into today’s noon doubleheader against Jacksonville State at EIU’s Williams Field.

Most probably did not even look into the unheralded Rantoul program enough to know that this pitcher whose 404 strikeouts in her junior season still ranks as 13th best in IHSA history did so while battling Wolff–Parkinson–White syndrome

That heart problem involving an extra valve was even more noticeable when she played basketball,

“It was kind of something off and on,” Mennenga said. “I got it fixed my senior year.”

That didn’t mean the 5-foot-11 right-hander became a big-time recruit.

“I think Northern Iowa was the only one that emailed me back,” she said.

OK so Eastern didn’t either.

“I didn’t know about her in high school honestly,” Panthers coach Kim Schuette said. “When I first knew of her was when we played Heartland.”

Settling for Heartland Community College where she was an NJCAA Division II All-American and Region 24 Player of the Year as a freshman, Mennenga in a fall game that she lost to Eastern impressed Schuette enough to be recruited to a team that had a pitcher leave that year.

“I asked her ‘what’s it going to take to get you on campus?’ ” Schuette said of a family visit to Eastern.

Apparently just that invitation was enough.

“They bought T-shirt after T-shirt, sweatshirt after sweatshirt,” Schuette

Mennenga said, “After I knew the coaches I thought Eastern Illinois is where I wanted to be.”

She became the Panthers No. 2 pitcher behind Stephanie Maday last year as a sophomore when she was 11-8 with a 3.01 ERA but that hardly satisfied Mennenga.

The pitcher made that clear in season ending player-coach meetings.

“At that time told me ‘I think you have two No. 1s on the team,’ ” Schuette said. “She told me ‘I am going to show you next year.’ ”

Maybe not even Mennenga knew that was going to mean No. 1 in the OVC, having been named the league’s Pitcher of the Week the past three weeks and five times this year leading an Eastern team to the league’s best record of 15-2.

“No, but I definitely wanted to show Coach I could do,” she said. “I had a little bit of an arm issue (last year) but I also think my head wasn’t where it needed to be.”

While she says the arm still might bring occasional problems, Mennenga’s head apparently is in the right place having some opponents wishing she was with their team.

“I’m glad we have her,” Schuette said.

EIU SOFTBALL

Today: noon doubleheader vs. Jacksonville State at Williams Field

Sunday: noon doubleheader vs. Tennessee Tech at Williams Field

Records: Eastern Illinois is 28-11 overall and leads the Ohio Valley Conference West Division with a league-best 15-2 mark. Jacksonville State is 24-19 overall and 9-7 for third in the OVC East. Tennessee Tech is 19-21 and second in the OVC East at 8-6 going into today’s noon doubleheader at SIU Edwardsville.

EIU notes: Hannah Cole, a sophomore from Windsor, is second in the OVC with a .419 batting average while leading the league with a .400 on-base percentage. She has 12 doubles and five home runs. Carly Willert is batting .351 including nine doubles. Bailey O’Dell has a team-high six home runs while batting .298 and Brooke Owens is the RBI leader with 32 while batting .284. Mattoon’s Reynae Hutchinson is batting .284 with six doubles and a homer. Stephanie Maday, 9-4, is third in the OVC with a 1.49 ERA.

Contact Nielsen at bnielsen@jg-tc.com or 217-238-6856.

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