Tate | Illini softball gets boost before Big Ten tourney

Tate | Illini softball gets boost before Big Ten tourney

The great fault with women's fast-pitch softball is the same one that signaled the virtual end of the once-popular men's sport in the past century.

It's too "fast-pitch." Male underarm slingers became too overpowering (and besides, the men had baseball).

As might be expected — with the distance a mere 43 feet from the pitcher's rubber to home plate — it's now set up for Wonder Woman to skew the balance. Give Olympic gold medalist Jennie Finch a quick-handed catcher and seven Wooden Indians and she's money in the bank.

And so it is in the Big Ten. Entering this final week of the regular season, coach Tyra Perry's Illini team had dropped 14 of 20 Big Ten games, but presented an all-games rank as the league's No. 1 in batting average (.314), hits (431), doubles (89) and total bases (702). And they stood No. 2 in slugging percentage (.512) and No. 3 in homers (56).

The stats indicate Illinois is tops offensively in the conference. A gang of Calamity Janes with bats. And they're pounding Purdue this weekend, reaching 8-14 in conference with a 7-2 romp Friday and an 11-9 verdict featuring back-to-back-to back homers in a 9-run fifth inning Saturday (they now have 62 bombs).

Big Ten boasts some big arms

It's no coincidence that the Big Ten's three best teams, each featuring a hurler of the Wonder Woman stripe, entered the week with a combined conference record of 57-2. That's right: 57-2.

Since they hadn't played each other, Northwestern was 20-0, Michigan was 19-1 and Minnesota was 18-1.

Northwestern has a special freshman in Danielle Williams. The southpaw showed a 26-3 overall mark with 250 strikeouts in 180 innings ahead of the Wildcats' weekend series at Minnesota. She then fanned 13 in a 1-0 shutout Friday, the Wildcats' lone run scoring on a wild pitch. Minnesota responded Saturday with an 8-0 triumph behind junior Amber Fiser, a nine-time Big Ten Pitcher of the Week, who fanned 20 in a doubleheader shutout of Wisconsin last week. Fiser's stats as of mid-week: 185 innings, 256 strikeouts.

And Michigan sophomore Meghan Beaubien, was 24-4 mark after Friday's 6-1 win over Maryland, and she is just a tad ahead of teammate Alex Storako, a Lincoln-Way East freshman who blanked Maryland Saturday, 8-0.

Illini searching for own Wonder Woman

So you can see Perry's problem. In a showdown of pitcher vs. hitter, the pitcher has a distinct advantage. And these rival Big Ten stars are young. Williams has three more years at NU. She won't be turning pro after her junior year, and she might pitch every game in a weekend series.

Illinois has a good freshman hurler as well, Iowan Sydney Sickels. But she hasn't displayed overpowering stuff in a 17-13 season, allowing more hits than innings pitched.

And in another concern for the UI future, sophomore catcher Bella Loya is the only returnee from the heart of an Illini order featuring plus-.300 hitters Kiana Sherlund, Annie Fleming, Carly Thomas and Veronica Ruelius, plus another versatile senior, Stephanie Abello. Those last five veterans carried 30 homers and 60 doubles into the Purdue series.

Illinois will add two in-state pitchers in the 2020 class — Freeport's Taylor Murray and Herscher's hard-throwing drop-ball ace Morgan Scivally. But is there a Wonder Women in there somewhere? That's a tall order.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com