Illini win homer battle but drop second game at home.
URBANA — Illinois won the home run derby but not the softball doubleheader Saturday at Eichelberger Field.
With 1,289 spectators turning out for the Illini’s annual softball tailgate promotion — which coincided with Moms Weekend — the Illini and Nebraska traded Big Ten Conference wins. Illinois won the opener 11-4, and the Cornhuskers salvaged the split with a 9-4 triumph in the nightcap.
The final game of the series is at noon Sunday.
“It was a great environment,” said freshman Nicole Evans, who was experiencing her first UI softball tailgate. “We could feel the spirit.”
The Illini (18-14) treated their fans to some early offensive heroics, scoring runs in each of the first three innings of the opener and building a 7-3 lead they never relinquished.
“The crowd helped us,” senior catcher Jenna Mychko said. “There was a lot of energy, and we fed off that.”
Evans, who hadn’t driven in a run for 45 days, reached her collegiate career high after two at-bats. She swatted a two-run homer in the second inning and added a two-run single an inning later.
The key, she said, is to put previous games aside.
“You have to have a short memory and not have distractions,” Evans said. “I go out each time thinking I’ll do great things.”
The home run was her third as an Illini and the second in the first two innings against Nebraska ace Tatum Edwards, who had yielded only three home runs in her first 1292/3 innings as a senior. Alex Booker drilled a solo shot in the first inning.
“Nicole is a very confident kid with great power,” UI coach Terri Sullivan said. “We don’t want to change her aggressive personality at the plate. We talk about learning to win the mental game and never being too down after a struggle. Nicole saw the ball well.”
Mychko hit a second-game home run against Edwards (14-8), helping the Illini to a 3-1 edge for the day on homers.
“We hit well in both games against a Nebraska team that had allowed only eight home runs all year against a great schedule,” Sullivan said.
The attendance was the second-best one-day total covering the 205 UI home games played at Eichelberger Field. Only a 2007 game against DePaul attracted more spectators (1,445).
“Everyone was excited to get outside, and our marketing staff had a lot of awesome promotions and did a tremendous job,” Sullivan said.
Freshman right-hander Brandi Needham (13-6) earned the first-game win, with two innings of scoreless relief from Shelese Arnold.
Kylie Johnson (4 for 8), Mychko (4 for 8) and Booker (3 for 5) were the Illini with hits in both games against the 20th-rated Cornhuskers (25-12).