Softball to begin Big Ten season this weekend

By Sultan Abdul-Ahad

The Illini look to begin the Big Ten season on a good note as they face two ranked teams this weekend.

First for the Illini is No. 23 Northwestern on Friday and Saturday. The Illini faced the Wildcats last weekend at the Stanford Tournament.

The Illini prevailed 5-3, thanks to a three-run single by junior third baseman Jenna Hall.

“Their entire team is back from last year and they are strong top to bottom offensively. There is a reason why they are ranked,” said Illini head coach Terri Sullivan.

The Illini split their two games against the Wildcats last year and are 5-3 against them all-time.

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On Sunday, the Illini face top-ranked Michigan in a doubleheader in Ann Arbor.

The Wolverines lost their first game of the season against Baylor, but have won 32 straight games.

“I think our team loves challenges. They are always strong from top to bottom, and they reload every year. It is exciting to go and play them at their place,” Sullivan said.

The Illini finished second in the Big Ten to the Wolverines last year.

The Illini will be facing their second top-ranked team in school history. The other team was Arizona, and the Illini lost both games to the Wildcats 4-1 and 2-0.

The Illini have beaten two ranked teams this season: then-No. 20 Northwestern last week and then-No. 5 LSU. Illinois has 17 wins over ranked opponents in school history.

The Illini are 15-11 on the season, but have had seven games cancelled due to rain this year.

Offensively, the Illini have relied on senior left fielder LeeAnn Butcher and junior center fielder Rachelle Coriddi to set the tone at the top of the order.

Butcher has scored 23 runs this season while Coriddi has 20 runs scored on the season.

“When they get on base, they make things happen. Opponents’ defense and pitchers worry about them,” Sullivan said.

Freshman shortstop Shanna Diller and junior third baseman are joint leaders on the team in RBI’s with 24. Hall hits .365 to lead to the team.

Another contributor to the lllini offense is sophomore right fielder Molly Lawhead.

Lawhead has the longest hitting streak on the team this season with an 8-game streak.

“I really saw her settle in consistently at the plate. She has been an offensive threat for us,” Sullivan said.

Freshman pitcher Mary Miller has stepped in and become the leader of the pitching staff.

She has appeared in 23 of the 26 Illini games this season, starting 15. She is 10-6 this season with a 3.12 ERA and had 71 strikeouts in 105.1 innings this year.

“She is the leader of the staff and our biggest leader on the field,” Sullivan said.

With three freshmen, Diller, Miller and second baseman Angelena Mexicano, contributing on a regular basis, most people would expect them to be nervous in their first conference game, but Sullivan doesn’t believe that will be a problem.

“They aren’t freshman anymore. If anything, they are our anchors,” Sullivan said.