Veteran hitters pull off late rally

Veteran hitters pull off late rally

URBANA — The bottom of the seventh inning of Sunday's game at Eichelberger Field?

That's what Illinois softball coach Tyra Perry has been looking for from her team.

It was a confluence of two scenarios the Illini haven't always played out consistently so far this season.

The top of the lineup — loaded with veteran hitters — got Illinois' two-out rally going against No. 23 Wisconsin.

Freshman designated player Kailee Powell finished it, driving in the game-winning run on a liner to the right-center field gap for a 6-5, series-clinching victory against the Badgers.

"We really needed that," Perry said. "We've been in situations where our top older, experienced kids are coming up and not quite getting the job done. Then we've been in situations like this as well earlier in the season where the same thing (a late rally) was happening. ... It was really good to see us get our confidence back and get a feel for winning again."

Kiana Sherlund started the seventh-inning rally for Illinois (20-7, 2-1 Big Ten) with a two-out single up the middle. The Illini's senior center fielder headed to the plate with a specific plan — simplify her at-bat.

"I knew that one swing wasn't going to change the game at that point in time," Sherlund said. "It was really beneficial just to simplify, take it one pitch at a time and just poke one through the infield. We needed baserunners, and we passed the bat."

Annie Fleming followed with another single up the middle, and a double by Bella Loya scored Sherlund to pull the Illini within one and put Fleming in scoring position on third. Fleming scored on a passed ball, setting up Powell for the winner.

"Right off the bat I felt it," Powell said of her walk-off single that scored pinch runner Zaria Dunlap. "It was really nice to know I had my whole entire team behind my back no matter what. Obviously, before that, I went 0 of 3, and it could have been really easy for my teammates to go, 'Oh, well this is it.'

"I looked over to my dugout, and I saw every single one of them was standing up and cheering for me. That's what got me through that at bat."

Powell's walk-off winner salvaged the series for Illinois after Wisconsin (22-5, 1-2) opened it with a 15-6 win on Friday.

Taking two of three from the Badgers has the Illini trending in the right direction at the beginning of conference play and midway point of the season as a whole.

"Definitely, definitely big starting off the (conference) year strong," said Sherlund, who was 3 of 4 with a double and two runs scored Sunday. "We didn't play our game on Friday, so it was really, really important to see how this team bounced back."

Illinois' two wins against Wisconsin couldn't have been much different.

Taylor Edwards and Sydney Sickels combined for a 2-0 shutout Saturday.

Sunday's come-from-behind victory included a second-inning home run by Veronica Ruelius before the seventh-inning fireworks. They both proved something about the Illini, though, according to Powell.

"Since we are a growing program, this series showed the Big Ten how much of competitors we are and how much we fight until the last out," she said. "Literally to the last out and last play. We're not a type of team to give up."

Now the Illini have to do it again. They get a midweek test at 5 p.m. Tuesday against Eastern Illinois (10-22) before heading to face Nebraska in Lincoln, Neb. The Cornhuskers (10-16, 0-3) were swept by No. 25 Michigan this weekend.

"We're playing every ranked, top team in the Big Ten this year," Perry said. "We're going to have to continue to fight and clean up some things, so we have the walk-off at the end in our back pocket, but maybe we don't have to use it. ... I've seen us play complete ballgames. If we can figure out how to do that consistently, I think it will take a lot of the pressure off."

Sherlund said the way forward for the Illini this season is the same as her seventh-inning at-bat against Wisconsin. Keep it simple.

"It's not going to be one person that's going to win every game," Sherlund said. "It's going to be a team effort. ... We're playing great ball right now. Everyone is finding themselves and really embracing their role on the team while still staying hungry. That's exactly what we want from every single person on the team.

"It's super important we started off our first Big Ten series with a series win. That's going to make it really easy to keep things rolling into the Big Ten season."