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It’s been a while since the Illinois softball team played a home game. Try 691 days ago on May 5, 2019. That drought ends Friday, with the Illini, who are off to their best start since 2010, hosting Minnesota for a four-game series at Eichelberger Field in Urbana. N-G sports copy editor Joe Vozzelli Jr. previews what’s ahead this weekend:

KEY HOME SERIES

After 12 games in Leesburg, Fla., during the span of 17 days, Illinois had a 12-day wait for its next game, with the Illini (10-2) returning to action by hosting the Gophers (9-3) at 5 p.m. Friday. The two teams have a doubleheader on Saturday, starting at 1 p.m., and conclude the series at noon on Sunday. “This is just gonna be great softball,” Illinois coach Tyra Perry said when asked about a matchup of two of the top-four teams in the Big Ten. “It’s just gonna be blow for blow, and I’m up for it.” Having last season end abruptly due to the COVID-19 pandemic has only added to what this season means to the Illini, according to Perry. “Everybody has a different perspective,” the sixth-year Illinois coach added, “just how special this game is and how special each moment is.”

INNER CIRCLE

Sydney Sickels has been the Illini’s ace since arriving on campus three years ago. But the Indianola, Iowa, native is having her best season yet. Albeit through 12 games. Her ERA dipped from 3.41 as a freshman (44 appearances) to 2.38 as a sophomore (16 appearances in the coronavirus-shortended campaign) to a 0.19 mark in 2021. Sickels has only allowed 25 baserunners (16 hits, four walks, five hit batters) in 372/3 innings this season. The 5-foot-11 right-hander has also compiled 54 strikeouts, including double-digit strikeouts in each of her past three games inside the circle. Perry said part of Sickels’ growth has come down to the confidence she has in pitching coach Lance McMahon. “We trust her,” Perry said. “Before she maybe would’ve just kind of done whatever (pitch) was called. Now, she’s a little bit more invested in the game, and her softball IQ is tremendous. So, I think, that’s been the difference.”

WORK IN PROGRESS

At first glance, you might think Perry would be happy with Illinois’ offensive numbers. The Illini, after all, are hitting .300 as a team, the best mark in the Big Ten. Illinois also has three of the top 12 hitters in the conference, led by Avrey Steiner (.432, eight RBI), Kailee Powell (.400, one home run, 10 RBI) and Jaelyn Vickery (.400, four RBI, six stolen bases). Still, Perry sees room for improvement. “We’re striking out too much,” the Illini coach said. “Some of it is we’ve faced great Big Ten pitching, but some of it is just our maturation as offensive threats. We’re working a lot on shoring up each player to help them gain confidence and maximizing their strengths.” Even so, Illinois’ strikeout totals (64) are the fourth fewest in the conference behind Northwestern (63), Minnesota (63) and Michigan (39) with all 14 league teams playing the same number of games (12).

THE RBI CHAIN

Extra incentive is there to come up with a run-scoring hit this season for the Illini. Like getting to wear an RBI chain. Yes, that’s a real thing. Much like the Miami Hurricanes football team’s “turnover chain,” Illinois’ version of it is a silver chain-linked necklace, which is attached to an orange block “I” with the letters “R.B.I.” inscribed on the “I.” Perry’s players came up the idea before the season. And their coach was all-in. “Much to my surprise, there’s a company that makes (these) chains,” Perry said. “They asked if we would get one for them, and I thought it was a great idea, and we made it happen.” Illinois had a few mock-ups done of the chain before getting it sent to them in time for the start of the season in late February. Who’s gotten to wear the RBI chain the most? That distinction belongs to Powell, the team leader in that stat.

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