Asmussen | Eager Illini take Cinderella dreams into NCAA regional

Asmussen | Eager Illini take Cinderella dreams into NCAA regional

Three berths in the last four NCAA tournaments. Three trips to Lexington. Ky.

Talk about your old Kentucky home.

The Illinois softball team doesn't need directions to the site of Friday's regional opener against Virginia Tech. John Cropp Stadium has become a home away from home for the Illini. Well, sort of.

"I think it's really cool to be able to say I've been to Kentucky three times for regionals," Illini senior Annie Fleming said. "We know the landscape a little bit, know what we are getting into. It's a very different vibe than going in your first year, when you don't know the lay of the land."

Named to honor a longtime Kentucky athletic administrator, the stadium has been home to the Wildcats since April 2013.

In both previous trips to The Cropp, the Illini were eliminated by the home team. To reach the super regional round, the Illini will likely need to beat the Wildcats.

Been there, done that. Early in the season at the Houston Invitational, Illinois knocked off then-No. 13 Kentucky 6-5.

"We get to go in with the confidence that we beat Kentucky this year already," Illini senior Carly Thomas said. "You can't help but smile when you go in beating the person who is expected to win."

It won't be easy.

"Kentucky is a really well-coached team," Illinois coach Tyra Perry said. "They have strong pitching."

First things first. Like getting to Lexington. The team will have a workout at home today than travel by bus 306 miles to its Embassy Suites headquarters.

The Illinois coach is thrilled not to be getting on a plane.

"It's such a quick turnaround," Perry said. "When you have the opportunity to drive and go to a place that's familiar, I think it's a plus."

There's a lodging change for the Illini from their previous trips. Fine with Perry and the players.

"The last one that we were in was OK, but it was a little bit older and supposedly had ghosts," Perry said.

"I think we've been at a different hotel every time we've been there," Fleming said. "We're just trying to find something that works and keeps us in the groove."

Going into the regional, Kentucky is the team to beat.

"The host team has a huge advantage," Perry said. "It's kind of like that in softball in general. I would assume it's the same in baseball if you look over the history of the home team."

Favorites don't win every time.

"This is sports. There's always that upset," Perry said. "There's always that Cinderella team that makes it through. And we believe it's going to be us."

The good part

Being familiar with the regional site is a plus for the Illini. Especially when not playing the home team.

It's pretty simple to figure out the crowd's motivation. It favors the underdog when not playing the local school. Stay with me, it gets complicated. Home fans figure their team's easiest path to the next round is against lesser teams.

Virginia Tech is the No. 2 seed and had a monster season, going 45-9.

If I'm a Wildcat rooter, I want no part of the Hokies. I much prefer 32-23 Illinois.

So, the home-field edge in the opener should go to the Illini. The Kentucky fans will start to pack the place before Illinois-Virginia Tech ends.

The Illini have other pluses. Like a roster full of seniors.

"Our seniors are super excited," Perry said. "We've been talking to the newcomers about acting like seniors. Not getting overwhelmed. We've been talking them through it so they can relax and play softball."

If you go ...

There are plenty of nearby sites for the Illini to visit during their downtime.

I'd start with Keaneland, located in Lexington. It's the heart of Kentucky's horse racing industry, with an annual sale that produces future race winners.

"That would be really cool," Thomas said.

In the mood for a little basketball history? Rupp Arena is home to John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats, who annually produce future NBA stars.

No surprise for a college town with a population of 321.959, Lexington has endless restaurants. For all tastes and budgets.

"They always take us to some nice places when we're in Lexington," Thomas said. "Every time we go, we always eat something good."

"Our director of ops (Michael Palmer) definitely knows the best restaurants," Fleming said.

I'd start with the Merrick Inn, then Corto Lima, Coles 735 Main, Malone's and Tony's of Lexington.

Once they get their fill of the food, the goal for the Illini is to play beyond this weekend and advance to the NCAA Super Regionals, which will likely be at No. 3-seed Washington.

"Oh yeah, we want go to super," Perry said. "We have to take care of business again in enemy territory with a very tough field. Getting to a super would be a dream."

They probably won't take a bus to Seattle.

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

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