CHAMPAIGN — Twenty-five conferences pick their automatic NCAA softball qualifier with tournaments this weekend.
The Big Ten isn’t one of them.
Listen to Illinois coach Tyra Perry, and you realize that’s a mistake.
Months ago, the Big Ten decided to skip its usual 12-team postseason tournament that Illinois was supposed to host in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the season.
Instead, the league is playing a 44-game conference-only schedule, which concludes Sunday.
“I voted to have it,” Perry said of the Big Ten tournament. “The problem a lot of the coaches had was it was going to be cut down. We were only going to have four teams. It would have left a lot of teams with an even shorter season.”
With COVID-19 a major concern, there was some merit to a reduced schedule. But the limited schedule and lack of conference tournament will likely cost the Big Ten berths when the 64-team NCAA field is unveiled on Sunday night.
Perry is hoping Illinois isn’t one that gets left out. The Illini carry a 24-19 record into Sunday’s 3 p.m. regular-season finale at Iowa after splitting a doubleheader against the Hawkeyes on Saturday in Iowa City.
“The way our schedule was set up, it’s left us completely vulnerable to just the committee and what they decide, because we weren’t able to put together a body of work,” Perry said.
“I’ve been frustrated with it the whole time, and I’ve expressed that to administrators. Our kids got double-whammied, especially when you’re watching the rest of the country play a regular season and the stance that some of the other conferences took as a far as trying to keep things as close to normal as possible They were able to do so safely. It would have been nice to have the same opportunity. But the Big Ten did what they thought was best at the time.”
The Big Ten is on a mostly empty island, joining just five other conferences that didn’t have postseason softball tournaments.
Perry said Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman and the other Illinois athletic administrators have been supportive.
“They tried to fight for us,” Perry said. “They’ve done what they could in that area. It was bigger than everybody.”
Last chanceOn Sunday, Perry’s team completes a critical four-game series at Iowa. Afterward, the Illini will learn their NCAA fate.
Does Perry think her team deserves spot?
“One-hundred and 10 percent,” she said. “My team should be in the NCAA tournament. Had we been able to have a regular season, I believe we would have put together a body of work that would have us in.”
Perry is unsure what will happen Sunday when the field is announced.
“I have no idea because it’s so unusual,” Perry said.
The team’s RPI is one of the lowest Perry has ever had as a coach.
The lack of outside competition hurts. A lot.
And the Big Ten teams keep knocking each other off every weekend.
“There are these huge swings each weekend,” Perry said. “We are basically taking each other up and taking each other down.”
To its credit, Illinois has two wins against perennial conference power Michigan, which won the regular-season title. It also has victories against Minnesota and Northwestern, which entered the weekend second and third in the standings.
Over the years, the Big Ten has received five or six NCAA tournament berths. Since Perry’s first season at Illinois in 2016, she’s guided the Illini to three NCAA tournament appearances. Perhaps, the committee, recognizing the uniqueness of the season, will reward the league with a similar number.
“The Big Ten didn’t all of a sudden fall off the map,” Perry said. “It’s an obvious common denominator as to why things are different for us this year. It’s not that we got worse as a conference.”
Stepping upSome Big Ten schools are releasing their COVID-19 results each week. Illinois is not among them, so we have no way to know the number of positive tests for the athletic program.
But Perry said the school has done a “great job” dealing with the pandemic.
“We’ve been healthy,” said Perry, who credited Illinois associate director of athletics for sports medicine Randy Ballard for this. “From what I believe, no competition in any sport has been canceled because of Illinois having COVID concerns.
“There’s a lot to be said for Randy and his team and what they’ve done. As well as just the entire university.”
Perry’s players have made sacrifices, missing out on normal college life.
“I’m very proud of them,” Perry said.
Needless to say, it has been a difficult year.
“This has been completely different than what their expectation was of their collegiate experience,” Perry said. “They’ve been resilient throughout all of it.”
The lack of midweek games cut into the experience, especially for the younger players.
Illinois had only one pitcher with Big Ten experience going into the season — Sydney Sickels — along with an inexperienced roster since the 2020 season was canceled after only 22 games.
“We’re just extremely young,” Perry said.
The team hasn’t been in a tournament setting since early in the abbreviated 2020 season.
Fair to say, the Illini are outperforming what should have been the expectations.
Safety firstPerry has been vaccinated.
The coach doesn’t know the vaccination status of her players.
“You don’t want to have the perception that you require someone to have a vaccine as a coach,” Perry said. “I don’t know enough of it to do that. So they’ve gone through our athletic training department to make those decisions.”
Perry is in her sixth season as Illini coach. She looks forward to a return to normalcy in her seventh season.
“Hopefully, everyone does what they need to do,” Perry said, “so we can put this thing to bed.”