Time Out Time Out

The Illini softball team takes its commitment to community service on the road.

Written by Nicole (Evans) Cazley (AHS ’17, ’18), 2023 Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame Inductee, Softball

Photographs courtesy of Illinois Athletics & players

It’s winter in Dallas. Not as cold as the Midwest, of course, but a crisp breeze in the Texas air is a chilly reminder to bundle up. Jill Nicklas, a tiny girl with blonde hair and round glasses stands behind a table piled high with coats dwarfing her small frame. As far back as Nicklas can remember, her parents encouraged her and her three sisters to give back to the community. From coat drives and nursing home visits to making signs to welcome home the troops, Nicklas learned early the importance of service to others.

A few years earlier and four hundred miles southeast, Tyra Perry was also learning the value of service from her family. Perry, a girl with a bright smile and close-knit southern family, grew up in Zachary, Louisiana, a small town right outside Baton Rouge. Her uncle was the pastor at their local church, and her family always gave back to her beloved community in the form of food and clothes to those who needed them.

As Perry and Nicklas grew older, they remained connected to the practice of service they had been taught. It’s no surprise, then, the two women would eventually bring this practice their future team, Fighting Illini softball.

Softball coach talks to player on base.
Jill Nicklas (EDU ’18) speaks with Coach Tyra Perry on third base at Eichelberger Field.

✦ ✦ ✦

By 2016, Perry was in her first year as the head coach of the Illini Softball team, and Jill Nicklas was a sophomore outfielder. As the semester began, Nicklas and her teammates schedules were already booked—or rather over booked. A typical day during the season started with a six-in-the-morning training session at Memorial Stadium, breakfast at Varsity Room Training table, classes throughout campus, a trip back to the stadium for lunch, then a walk, bike ride, or drive to the softball field for practice, post-practice treatment in the training room, back to training table for dinner, and finally a few hours of schoolwork at the Irwin Academic Center.

On their one day off a week, the team also did community service in town—and they were looking for ways to do more. Faced with their jam-packed schedule, Nicklas sat down with Kathy Kaler, a staff member in athletics who championed service and support. She suggested something Nicklas hadn’t considered. Why not do service on the road?

With that suggestion, Nicklas built a program that is alive seven years later. Between Kaler’s help organizing, Nicklas’ ambition to put in as much team service time as possible, and Coach Perry’s stamp of approval, the team lined up multiple days of service as their Big Ten Conference season kicked off.

Softball coach speaks to players.
Coach Tyra Perry speaks to the Illini Softball team.

✦ ✦ ✦

The first stop during that 2016 season was cornhusker territory. Instead of practicing just before what was an important game, the team arrived at an elementary school to read to a group of students. They’d done plenty of service on their home turf in Champaign-Urbana but not right before a game. Would volunteering instead of practicing affect their performance?

“I remember leaving that school, and everyone was excited saying we should do that more often. That night we run-ruled Nebraska and had the best game we’ve ever had. From then on, we committed to service on the road,” said Nicklas. “Teammates started giving ideas to me, and it just took off. I remember other Big Ten schools reaching out to learn more about what we were doing.”

Softball player signs a softball for a fan.
Recent graduate Danielle Davis (AHS ’23) interacts with an aspiring softball player at the MLB Playball Clinic in Tampa, Florida.

The team would go on to visit The Children’s Hospital at The University of Iowa, The Ronald McDonald House, nursing homes, and elementary schools across Big Ten country.

These young women benefitted in ways far beyond winning softball games.

“It was a form of empowerment for our team. Instead of hitting balls or training like we would normally do, we went out into the community and connected with people. We physically saw the uplift from that,” Coach Perry described.

When Nicklas, now the head coach of the McKinney High School softball team in Texas, recalled those times, she realized how transformative they had been for her. “These trips showed that no matter where you are in life, no matter where you live, there’s always something or someone you can give back to.”

✦ ✦ ✦

The pride of being a Fighting Illini Athlete never fades. When asked what it means to be part of the Illini family, Nicklas responded without wavering.

“Oh, my gosh, it means everything. I can pick up the phone and call anybody from the past and without a doubt, there’s no hesitation that people are always willing to help. It’s huge, and I don’t think you can get that anywhere else. We are truly a family.”

“We are more than athletes on a field—we are strong young women who can and should be making a positive difference in our community.”Kelly Ryono (AHS '22, '23)

And like in any family—or in this case, team—the outgoing players pass on traditions and expectations to the next generation. Today, the team continues to put in endless volunteer hours during their Big Ten season, all while making new and old stops along the way.

This past season, while the team was on the road in Michigan, the team visited a local YMCA and took over the gym playing four-square, soccer, and basketball with the kids in attendance.

The legacy and culture of service is strong within the softball program, and the current players are now realizing the benefit of being involved and serving their larger community. Coach Perry has spoken about the program at Big Ten conferences and with other institutions to encourage and expand the service mindset and inspire other programs to do the same. The team is leading the way for what it means to be a collegiate athlete—equal parts student, athlete, and servant leader.

Kelly Ryono, current senior on the team, said it best. “Whether we’re at a local elementary school, a YMCA, a women’s shelter, the list goes on, we are trying to make a difference. It also reminds us to be grateful and thankful for the experiences we get to have,” Ryono said.

“As student-athletes, we receive so much support, and we want to do everything we can to give back. It’s helped us realize our impact can and does go beyond the softball field. We are more than athletes on a field—we are strong young women who can and should be making a positive difference in our community.”

Two softball players volunteer in a kitchen.
Jill Nicklas (EDU ’18) and Breanna Wonderly (GIES ’17) volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House during the 2016 Illini softball season.
This story was published .