Executive sports editor Fred Kroner’s thoughts on the Big Ten softball tourney, which starts Thursday at Northwestern. The ninth-seeded Illini face eighth-seeded Iowa in a 4:30 p.m. game, the day’s third of four contests:
The Illini (23-25) are long shots for returning to the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in the 15-year existence of the softball program. But the team has a shot and hopes to end an NCAA drought that is closing in on four years without a berth.
Regular season wins against Big Ten co-champions Michigan and Nebraska reinforce the feelings of UI coach Terri Sullivan. “We feel we can beat anybody on any given day,” she said. The only certain way for a sub-.500 team to reach the NCAAs is to win the single-elimination conference tournament. That would mean winning four games in three days. Last weekend, Illinois won three games in three days at Penn State. “We didn’t do so hot (in conference play), but this is our insurance policy,” said sophomore outfielder Kylie Johnson, the top UI batting leader. “This is our chance to show we can beat big teams and prove what we can do.”
The Illini-Iowa winner draws top-seeded Michigan on Friday. The Wolverines have a first-day bye.
Middle infielders Ruby Rivera and Allie Bauch are among the three Illini who have started all 48 of the team’s games. (Senior outfielder Alex Booker is the third.) Shortstop Rivera and second baseman Bauch have etched their names in the school record books, turning 16 double plays. Rivera, a freshman, has had an impressive first season as a collegian. “She does things we’ve never seen a shortstop in our program do,” Sullivan said. The previous record for double plays by middle infielders was 15 by shortstop Lindsey Hamma and second baseman Katie O’Connell (now an Illini assistant) in 2004. “It’s our favorite play in practice to go over,” Rivera said. “We want to continue breaking the record.” Illinois has a program-record 32 double plays this season, including three games with three double plays. Bauch has a team-high eight home runs and five times has led off a game with a homer. First baseman Remeny Perez leads all league players with 21 double plays.
Best start ever
It wasn’t that long ago — Feb. 15 — that the Illini had secured their best start in school history, extending their season-opening winning streak to eight games. “A very strong start,” All-Big Ten second-team pick Johnson said. “Some big wins, and then some losses that were close.” Entering postseason play, Illinois has suffered seven one-run losses. Three losses have occurred in extra innings. The team also owns first-game wins against nationally ranked Missouri, Nebraska and Michigan. Two of the three games in this year’s series against Iowa were one-run decisions, the Illini losing the opener 4-3 and winning the finale 4-3 in late March. “That gives us a lot of hope,” said Johnson, a Kankakee native. Nine Illini are from the suburban Chicago area, including the two seniors, Booker (Gurnee) and Jenna Mychko (Huntley). “This (tournament) will be like a home game for them,” Sullivan said. “We wanted to bring momentum into the weekend. We’re very excited about the conference tournament.”