NCAA fate out of Illini softball's control

NCAA fate out of Illini softball's control

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Taylor Edwards' Illinois softball teammates gathered around the senior pitcher shortly after Friday afternoon's gut-wrenching 1-0 extra-inning loss to No. 21 Michigan in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals.

Carly Thomas issued words of encouragement. Stephanie Abello patted Edwards on the back.

The Illini (32-23) are hoping Friday's game wasn't the last in the college careers of their seniors, including Edwards, Thomas and Abello. That fate is now in the hands of the selection committee as Illinois will need an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament to keep its season alive. The selection show is scheduled for 8 p.m. Sunday on ESPN2.

But if Friday was the final college game for Edwards, an Arcola native, it might have been the best one of her Illinois career, especially given the stakes with the ninth-seeded Illini trying to sway the committee by beating the top-seeded Wolverines (41-11).

Edwards allowed seven hits and three walks in seven-plus innings.

A mistake on an 0-1 count to Michigan's three-hole hitter, Lexie Blair, made all the difference, though. The left-handed hitting Blair ripped an inside pitch over the wall in right center for a solo homer in the eighth inning and raced around the bases before her teammates greeted the freshman at home plate to celebrate the walk-off victory.

"I was just trying not to think too much," Blair said. "I was seeing the ball well. I feel like my first two at-bats I hit it right to them. I was trying to see my pitch and hit it hard."

"Taylor pitched a gem of a game and to have her lose it and to have the loss happen on one of her pitches was toughm but she's tougher and she's going to come back stronger," Illinois coach Tyra Perry said. "It was one of the best games I've seen her throw. It's been a long time coming. She's just steadily been getting better and better. Taylor is just a great person, a hard worker and she's a team player and hopefully we can get a bid into the (NCAA) tournament and see her grow."

The Illini were left to rue their chances after leaving seven runners stranded against the Wolverines' pitching combo of Alex Storako and Meghan Beaubien.

Illinois' best chances to score the game's first run came in the fifth and seventh innings.

With Alexis Carrillo on third base following Avrey Steiner's one-out single in the fifth, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins turned to Beaubien, who maneuvered her way out of trouble with an assist from her defense. Shortstop Natalia Rodriguez dove to stop a hard ground ball off the bat of Kiana Sherlund and got the force out at third base to end the inning.

Two innings later, Illinois had runners on second and third with one out before Beaubien again hunkered down. Beaubien eventually won an 11-pitch at-bat against Annie Fleming, who fouled out for the final out of the seventh.

"We had our chances," Perry said. "A couple times we did get hits that I thought would be the clutch hit to get us through. Michigan, as Michigan does, make really tough plays. We had a chance. That's all you can ask for."

Still, the Illini mustered only four hits and a walk in the loss, their fourth of the season against the Wolverines after Michigan swept a three-game series last month at Eichelberger Field.

Now, all Illinois can do is wait. The Illini were a bubble team for the NCAA tournament entering the week with an RPI sitting at 44. Perry made a case for Illinois' inclusion in the field of 64 after Illinois missed out last season.

"I think we have a shot," Perry said. "You never know what they are looking for. We got the (6-4) win against Nebraska (on Thursday) and played just a great game against Michigan, so hopefully the committee likes that and that's enough. I told (the players afterward), 'I just don't feel like we're done.'"