Huth: Illini softball's top Big Ten storylines
After 23 games on the road this season, the Illini softball team is scheduled to make its home debut — and open the Big Ten race — at 1 p.m. today with a doubleheader against Minnesota (18-7) at Eichelberger Field. Staff writer JEFF HUTH offers an update on Terri Sullivan's streaking squad, which has won six of its last seven games to improve to 13-10:
Big Ten shuffle
If you go by the latest USA Today/NFCA Top 25 poll, the Big Ten is pretty much flying under the radar. No. 20 Michigan is the conference's lone team to receive votes. Considering the Wolverines' pedigree — they're the four-time defending Big Ten champs and have won 14 league titles since 1992 — Michigan remains the team to beat in the conference race. But after that? "I think there's a great deal of parity in the conference this season," Sullivan said. With the addition of Nebraska bringing the number of Big Ten softball members to 12, there have been changes to the schedule format. Since 2001, each team was scheduled to face every other league school twice for a total of 20 games, Now, each school will play three-game series against eight Big Ten opponents for a total of 24 games. Illinois will not face Indiana, Michigan State (which the Illini beat 8-0 Feb. 11 in a tournament) and Ohio State in league play this season.
Sullivan is confident her 1-2 pitching punch of juniors Pepper Gay and Jackie Guy will be an advantage for Illinois in conference series, particularly now that Guy has bounced back from a rocky start. Beyond the fact that the physical load in two-day, three-game league matchups is lessened by using more than one pitcher, Sullivan likes the idea of forcing the opposing lineup to see — and adjust to — a different look from the circle. "I'm excited to get after it and see how it goes with the three-game series," the UI coach said. "It helps if you have two pitchers throwing well, and I believe we do have that right now." Gay, an All-Big Ten second-teamer as a freshman, entered the week 8-3 with a 1.75 ERA and is holding opponents to a .176 batting average. Guy, who had offseason knee surgery, is 3-1 with a 2.21 ERA in her last five appearances. On Sunday, she threw a two-hit shutout against a Chattanooga team that entered with a .349 batting average.
There's never been any question about senior Meredith Hackett's ability to hit college pitching. The only question, particularly after the Illini first baseman batted .418 with 16 home runs in 2010, was whether opponents would dare challenge the slugger in the strike zone. By her lofty standards, Hackett struggled at times last season against wary pitchers, hitting .336 with a .161 decrease in slugging percentage from the previous year. "She didn't see very many good pitches last season," Sullivan said. "That can get frustrating for a hitter." It didn't help either that the 2010 first-team All-American suffered a late-season hamstring pull. But Hackett appears to be back to her old self, leading the Illini by a wide margin in batting average, homers, RBI and total bases. In the 4-0 win against Chattanooga, Hackett homered and drove in three runs. "It's good to have her back," Sullivan said. "In our offense, Meredith makes us tick; she makes us go."