Illini enter postseason with confidence, despite loss to end regular season

Illini enter postseason with confidence, despite loss to end regular season

By JOE VOZZELLI

URBANA — For the Illinois softball team, the winning formula moving forward might be a simple one: The Illini must rely on arguably the fiercest offense in the Big Ten, and play steady defense behind their pitch-to-contact staff of Emily Oestreich and Taylor Edwards.

Illinois has cashed in 36 times on some variation of that equation this season.

The start to Sunday's regular-season finale against Nebraska at Eichelberger Field took on a similar look, with Carly Thomas clocking a two-run homer in the first inning, and the Illini staying busy defensively behind Oestreich. Six of the first seven Nebraska hitters failed to make solid enough contact against the junior pitcher — two fly outs, two infield pop-ups and a pair of ground-ball retirements.

But, Illinois couldn't sustain that success for all seven innings, and the Cornhuskers, who had dropped eight straight games, provided an offensive jolt of their own — Taylor Otte's three-run homer in the third inning — and dumped the Illini 6-3.

Sunday's outcome likely didn't change what will be demanded of Illinois this week at the Big Ten tournament. It just made the Illini's path more difficult.

So when Tyra Perry gathered her team after Sunday's defeat in left field, Illinois' third-year coach was brutally honest: Let's take it out of the selection committee's hands, win the conference tournament and clinch an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.

"The Big Ten is wide open," Perry said. "We just told them that. It's anybody's tournament. If we are playing ball the way we played Friday and Saturday, we can beat anybody."

With a win Sunday, the Illini (36-17, 13-8) would have clinched a first-round bye for the Big Ten's postseason gathering in Madison, Wis. Instead, Illinois settled for the sixth seed and will play 11th-seeded Maryland (18-36, 7-16) in Thursday's first round at 1:30 p.m. To secure the Big Ten's aforementioned automatic berth into the national tournament, the Illini would be required to win four games in three days this week.

As far as an at-large bid is concerned — Illinois had used one in each of the past two seasons — Perry's team entered the week ranked 59th in RPI. Since 2009, the worst RPI mark to qualify for an NCAA softball regional as an at-large team was 53rd. College Sports Madness, which releases weekly brackets, had Illinois as one of the "last four in" the national tournament according to its projection on May 1.

For the second time in as many weekends, the Illini had a Big Ten opponent on the ropes. This time, Illinois, which finishes the regular season with the league's top-rated offense in average (.323) and runs scored (344), brought more pain to the Cornhuskers as Thomas drove a 1-0 offering over the left-field wall for a two-run lead in the first.

"I wanted to be aggressive and attack," Thomas said. "That's what I went with. I saw a pitch up in the zone and went for it."

Yet, for the second time in as many weekends, the Illini let their foe off the hook, and just like what happened at Penn State, failed to complete a three-game sweep.

It was a pair of third-inning errors — Stephanie Abello's throwing gaffe and Sam Acosta's botched play at third base on a bunt — that handcuffed Illinois against the Cornhuskers (31-22, 9-13), who finally timed up Oestreich's pitches to produce a four-run third.

"We started out OK on the defensive front and we got a little unfocused in the third," Perry said. "It took the momentum from us. We had it early after Carly's home run but we lost it in that inning and never got it back."

Oestreich (15-9) was tagged with seven hits, two walks and six runs (two earned) through 6 1 / 3 innings.

Abello — Illinois' catcher — said Oestreich "dealt with a really tight strike zone" from home-plate umpire Geri Magwire.

"The balls that Nebraska put in play, we could have made some plays on," added Abello, who also clubbed a solo homer in the third inning to pull the Illini back within a run of the Cornhuskers.

Perry agreed with her catcher — to a point, arguing that while the strike zone was "generous" for Nebraska's pitchers and "inconsistent" overall, it didn't excuse Illinois from any culpability.

"We know how to combat that and it's by swinging the bat," Perry said, "and we didn't do that."

Now, the Illini, who have won 11 of their past 13 games, have work to do if they hope to reach an NCAA regional for the third straight season — a feat that hasn't been done in program history. Illinois seems to be brimming with confidence despite Sunday's loss.

"It's not pressure. It's motivation. It pushes us forward," Abello said of the high expectations on the Illini. ... "I don't think anybody really expects us to come up with any hardware but they've got something coming for them."