Asmussen | On the bubble, Illini must go big or go home

Asmussen | On the bubble, Illini must go big or go home

The Big Ten has done its share of damage in the NCAA softball tournament. Michigan has been there 25 times, including the last 23 in a row. The Wolverines took the national title in 2005.

Nebraska has gone 24 times; Iowa and Northwestern have each earned 16 bids. Minnesota and Penn State have been invited 12 and 10 times, respectively.

Illinois wants to become one of the regulars. The Illini have earned bids six times in their abbreviated history, including the last two, since the program started in 2000.

"We're a Power 5 school," third-year Illinois coach Tyra Perry said. "We're in the Big Ten Conference. There are so many ways to get into the tournament. If we do our job, if we take care of business, then we should be a team that is in the tournament every year,"

Perry's Illini can make it three in a row by winning this weekend's Big Ten tournament at Madison, Wis. The sixth-seeded Illini (36-17) open against No. 11 Maryland (18-36) at 1:30 p.m. today in the single-elimination tournament.

It will take four victories in three days to grab the Big Ten's automatic NCAA berth.

If not, the Illini will spend a nervous Sunday night together, watching as the invitees are called on ESPN2's selection show that starts at 9 p.m.

"It's super important," Perry said. "I don't want to see the break in the momentum we've already had in the first two years."

On their minds

The Illini started talking about the NCAA tournament when they first met in January.

"That's always one of our goals," pitcher Taylor Edwards said. "Actually, to win the NCAA tournament is one of our goals."

You can't win unless you enter.

Perry mentioned the NCAA tournament the first time she met with her new team. Before it played a game in 2016.

The Illini delivered, earning a not-sure-about-it bid in Perry's first season and a don't worry-about-it berth in the second.

This year? Bubble city.

The Illini will have a low-key gathering Sunday. They will hope for the best.

"We're believing fully that it is going to work out," Perry said.

Of course, winning the Big Ten tournament will end the suspense.

"Coach Perry was just talking about how Illinois has never won a Big Ten championship," Edwards said. "We're excited to go out and be the first team to do that."

How?

"If everybody does their role and does it well," Edwards said, "then we'll win."

Local connection

While growing up in nearby Arcola, Edwards dreamed of playing college sports ... far away. Florida and Baylor were at the top of her wish list.

Then she came to Illinois' campus and saw "all the opportunities Illinois had as a school."

In softball, she wanted to set a new bar. Win early and often.

Edwards is on track, with a chance to reach the NCAA tournament all four years.

"There's a lot of championships that have yet to be won and to get to be a part of the first time is exciting," Edwards said.

She has done her share.

The junior right-hander is 14-7 with a 3.41 earned run average in 22 starts this season and is getting better every day.

"Her development as a pitcher has been very interesting to watch," Perry said. "She is starting to understand her body. She throws really hard. She's got a great future ahead of her."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.