LINCOLN, Neb. — When Illinois softball slumped this season, the Big Ten tournament never was the carrot that coach Terri Sullivan dangled as motivation to improve.
Though she acknowledged it was nice to have “the insurance policy” of a second chance to make the NCAA tournament, she added, “Our focus has been game-by-game, inning-by-inning, pitch-by-pitch. This has been a great group that has always kept the work ethic and desire to play.”
The sixth-seeded Illini (22-26) enter the one-and-done format today, facing an opponent at 4:30 p.m. (11th-seeded Penn State) they did not play in the regular season.
“Since we don’t play everybody anymore, it’s exciting that all 12 teams are going (to the tournament),” Sullivan said.
Top-seeded Michigan is in the opposite bracket. The Wolverines are a team Illinois did not play this season.
Michigan faces a potential semifinal game against another school it did not meet, fourth-seeded Wisconsin.
“One of the pluses is that we may get to see people we have not seen,” said Michigan’s Carol Hutchins, the Big Ten Coach of the Year. “Our focus is on what we do and what we do well.”
Even for the 44-9 league champs, there’s reason to do well this week.
“When kids look back on a season, what they will remember is the postseason,” Hutchins said. “This is one and done. You come to play, or you go home. It is pressure, but that’s a great tuneup for the NCAA.”
Three UI players received recognition when the Big Ten released postseason awards Wednesday.
Junior Alex Booker was selected to the 16-player All-Big Ten second team. She and teammate Jami Schkade were picked for the inaugural 10-player Big Ten All-Defensive first team.
Neither Booker, a left fielder, nor Schkade, a second baseman, committed an error in league games. Schkade had 54 attempts. Booker had a league-high (among outfielders) 87 putouts and threw out seven runners.
Illini catcher Jenna Mychko, a junior, was Illinois’ Sportsmanship Award winner for softball.
Luck of the draw
Nebraska — which will play in its first Big Ten tournament — became the league host in a blind draw. The expectation is the tournament now will rotate alphabetically, with Northwestern next in line.
The tournament, last played in 2008, was revived after a four-year break. Illinois has been the No. 6 seed in three consecutive appearances. In 2007 and 2008, the Illini also were seeded sixth.
Sullivan’s team started 1-11 in Big Ten play before closing with 11 wins in its final 12 games. The 14th-year UI coach said her team can be a factor.
“We’re playing better in all parts of the game,” she said, “and Pepper (Gay, senior pitcher) is throwing very aggressively. This will be a great challenge.”
Overall, this is the 16th year for a Big Ten tournament. Michigan has won the title eight times. Illinois’ best finish was second place in 2004.
Not about the record
Iowa (30-23) wound up as the No. 9 seed. Like Illinois, the Hawkeyes scheduled a difficult preconference schedule. Iowa’s RPI is among the top 50 nationally.
Illinois’ RPI has been among the top five but ended 19th.
Iowa third-year coach Marla Looper said more schools will follow the same pattern.
“The Big Ten is starting to evaluate itself,” Looper said. “Those preseason matchups will prepare us for this championship environment.”
Booker is one of two .300 hitters through 48 games. She leads the Illini with a .352 batting average as well as with 20 stolen bases.
Freshman first baseman Remeny Perez is hitting .305.
Gay continues to move up the all-time pitching charts. She has started more games (112) and struck out more batters (588) than any pitcher in school history. She ranks second with 71 career wins.
All Illini tournament games will be carried live on WDWS (1400-AM), with Brian Moline on the call.