Pinch-hit homer takes down Illini softball

Pinch-hit homer takes down Illini softball

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Tyra Perry admitted after Friday's NCAA tournament opener that a few in-game jitters may have bothered freshman pitcher Sydney Sickels in the sixth inning of the Illinois softball team's 6-2 loss to Virginia Tech.

After the Illini had tied the game in the prior half inning, Illinois' fourth-year head coach watched as the Hokies quickly threatened and decided it was time to make a change from Taylor Edwards to Sickels in the circle.

A week after losing in heartbreaking fashion in a Big Ten tournament game against Michigan after Edwards surrendered a walk-off solo homer in the eighth inning to the Wolverines, the Arcola native looked on helplessly this time from the dugout as pinch-hitter Sierra Walton — the first batter to face Sickels — smacked a three-run homer to put No. 21 Virginia Tech ahead 5-2 in the sixth inning.

"I just thought the momentum was shifting a little bit and Sydney Sickels has been great for us all year," Perry said of the decision to change pitchers.

"She may have had a little bit of jitters there, but this is good education for her, the entire team, and she's tough, she's strong and she's going to fight back."

Virginia Tech coach Pete D'Amour countered Perry's move by going to Walton, who hadn't homered all season, with only 38 at-bats and a .211 average prior to Friday's first-round game of the Lexington Regional at John Cropp Stadium.

"Part of it was gut instinct, I guess," D'Amour said afterward. "I just felt like (Walton) was going to run into one. She made me look like a genius."

That she did, and because of Walton's heroics, the Illini (32-24) will face an elimination game against Toledo (29-27) at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, while the Hokies (46-9) will meet No. 14 Kentucky (34-22) with a berth into Sunday's regional final on the line.

"I 100 percent believe that we are a great team, that we deserve to be here and that we had a lot of chances to come out on top in that game (against Virginia Tech)," Perry said. "Part of our speech to the team (after the game) was this is a double-elimination tournament and you cannot care about what happened (Friday) because it's over. We're going to have our chances again (Saturday) and we have learned all year from our losses."

Perry said Edwards was a big reason Illinois had a chance to upset the Hokies. The senior delivered for much of Friday in yet another high-pressure tournament game, limiting Virginia Tech for the first five innings to two runs.

Illinois twice rallied to tie the game, with Katie Wingerter yanking a ball down the left-field line for a solo homer in the third inning before the Illini tied the game at 2 in the sixth inning.

But the sixth inning might be remembered more for what it could have been for Illinois.

Veronica Ruelius' double-play ball brought in the game-tying run, but with the bases loaded and no outs when the senior right fielder stepped to the plate, Illinois had a chance at a much bigger inning.

"That (double play) was the play of the game," D'Amour said. "If that ball goes through the middle, arguably that scores two runs and it's first and third with no outs."

Perry disagreed somewhat.

"Bella Loya came up behind that (double) play and had a great hit, you know, they caught the ball in the gap on the fence (for the third out), so I didn't really think much of it," the Illini coach said. "Would I have liked to have had more out of that scenario? Yes of course. But I feel like we were actually starting to see the ball and starting to threaten runs."

Ultimately, it didn't matter, as Virginia Tech's combination of Keely Rochard and Carrie Eberle allowed only five hits and permitted zero walks, while the Hokies mustered eight hits and six walks against the Illini's trio of Edwards, Sickels and Akilah Mouzon.