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Megan Ward and the Illinois softball team will now play a doubleheader on Saturday against Penn State at Eichelberger Field in Urbana with the first game set for a 1 p.m. first pitch.

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CHAMPAIGN — The World’s Largest Softball Tailgate returns at 11 a.m. Saturday when Illinois hosts Penn State at Eichelberger Field.

The game actually starts at 1 p.m. in what will serve as a Saturday doubleheader after Friday’s game was postponed due to rain.

It’s the 17th annual softball tailgate. More important, it is the first since 2019. The last two were shelved because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a line I find myself writing often.

The forecast is softball-friendly, with temperatures in the mid-60s at first pitch under sunny skies.

Pregame activities for fans include inflatables, balloon artists and face painting. Food trucks will be available.

Tyra Perry’s team is playing well, entering the weekend series with a 33-17 overall record and 14-5 mark in the Big Ten.

Illinois is third in the conference behind 18-2 Northwestern and 15-4 Nebraska. The Illini are fighting for a spot in the NCAA tournament, with bracketologists split on whether the team makes the 64-team field.

After Saturday’s game, the Illini will honor departing seniors Bella Loya and Lakyn Wagoner.

Former Illini of the Week: Football’s Kerby Joseph (Lions), Vederian Lowe (Vikings) and Doug Kramer (Bears).

How cool is it the three drafted Illinois exes will all be playing in the NFC North?

That means two games against each other each season, a chance for the guys to catch up and compare rookie notes, while swapping jerseys after games.

Besides facing his buddies, Kramer will also have a game against former Illini coach Lovie Smith. The Bears host the Houston Texans.

All three will make their teams. Joseph is going to likely play the most, although you never know how much injuries will impact the Vikings and Bears offensive lines. The goal for Lowe and Kramer is to get on the field any way possible. That will include plenty of special teams work.

The endless experience Kramer and Lowe got at Illinois is going to pay off. They have played at the highest level of college football. The next step, though a steep one, is easier because of where they have been and who has trained them.

How many of their 2021 teammates will join them in the NFL?

Seven signed rookie free-agent deals, including linebacker Jake Hansen with the Texans. Earning a spot on an NFL roster as an undrafted player isn’t easy, but is possible. There are all sorts of examples of former Illini taking that route and having successful pro careers.

The restart of the USFL creates even more options for players to stay in the game. If it doesn’t work in the fall, there is a potential second chance available in the spring.

Illinois coach Bret Bielema wants as many Illini in the NFL as possible. It provides proof that the staff is helping to develop players. Bielema sent his fair share of players to the NFL from Wisconsin and Arkansas. The plan is to keep that trend going at Illinois.

Don’t miss it: Baseball vs. Miami (Ohio), noon, Saturday.

Dan Hartleb needs one win to hit a major milestone. The next victory will be Hartleb’s 500 at Illinois.

Impressive.

His team goes out of conference for the weekend with a three-game set against Miami (Ohio) with a doubleheader on Saturday starting at noon while the rest of the league knocks each other off. Good timing.

Illinois currently stands 12-6 in Big Ten play, trailing Rutgers and Maryland. The Illini are in good position to qualify for the eight-team Big Ten tournament, scheduled for May 25-29 in Omaha. Neb.

The Illini are 23-19 overall and likely need to win the Big Ten tournament to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament.

MAC member Miami arrived in C-U with a 19-26 record. The programs have played three times in history, with Illinois holding a 2-1 edge. The last meeting was in 2008 in Sarasota, Fla.

Back to work

Renee Slone’s women’s golf team opens play Monday in the NCAA Tallahassee Regional scheduled for Seminole Legacy Golf Club. The 54-hole event runs through Wednesday.

Illinois enters ranked No. 25 in the nation and is coming off a fifth-place finish at the Big Ten tournament. Making its fifth consecutive NCAA regional appearance, Illinois is the No. 5 seed behind South Carolina, UCLA, Florida State and Mississippi.

The top four team finishers advance to the NCAA championships set for May 20-25 at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).

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