Illinois fails to gain ground

By Troy Murray

Illinois had a chance to move up in the Big Ten standings this weekend, but did not take advantage of the opportunity, getting swept by defending national champions Michigan and splitting its series with Michigan State.

The No. 12 Wolverines, behind a stellar performance from ace starting pitcher Jennie Ritter on Friday, shut down the Illini, who managed only three hits and one run in two games against the All-American with a .72 ERA. Ritter baffled the Illini, recording 24 strikeouts in two games.

“(Ritter) really works the strike zone well,” said Illini head coach Terri Sullivan. “In the first game we were swinging at the pitcher’s pitches and not hitter’s pitches. She made us look bad at the plate – she’s just a terrific pitcher.”

The one run Ritter did give up came against fellow finalist for USA Softball Player of the Year. Illinois first basemen Jenna Hall came up to bat in the fourth and laced a line drive over the left field fence for an opposite field home run.

The home run was Hall’s 13th of the season, which establishes a new Illinois single-season record, held previously by Erin Montgomery.

“She should be very proud to be in the record books at Illinois,” Sullivan said. “To make a mark like that in our history as a program at Illinois is a special thing. It’s a spectacular individual accolade that she’s well deserving of. She will, for a long time, be one of the best hitters in Illinois softball history.”

Illinois center fielder Rachelle Coriddi also tied Illinois’ single-season steals record set by herself in 2003 by taking her 23rd base of the year.

On Saturday, Illinois looked like it would knock off Michigan as starting pitcher Claire DeVreese took a no-hitter and a one-run lead into the sixth inning.

DeVreese allowed only three hits in her complete game effort. The workhorse for the Illini has gone 215 1/3 innings thus far this season. In the last 15 games, DeVreese is 7-4 with a 2.12 ERA and, in her last nine conference games, DeVreese is 5-2 with a 1.74 ERA.

But the defending national champs’ experience came through as senior catcher Becky Marx delivered a two-out single, scoring senior Stephanie Bercaw from second to tie the game in the sixth. A pair of Illinois errors led to two more unearned runs in the inning.

“I know our entire team felt real good about the position we were in in the sixth inning,” Sullivan said. “Claire was having one of her best games of the year, our defense was really strong, but you still have to close games out.”

The Illinois offense broke out in game three of the weekend, scoring seven runs and taking the first of two from Michigan State.

“We challenged some hitters to step up and do some good today,” Sullivan said. “Michigan State’s pitchers did a great job early and were really on a roll. I believe hitting, at this point of the season, has a lot to do with your confidence at the plate.”

The split with Michigan State leaves Illinois still a half game behind the Spartans for fifth in the conference race.

“You’re in a position to win three out of four, but we only came away with one,” Sullivan said. “The difference was making plays and being aggressive – we lacked that in the two games where we had costly errors. You never want to give good teams a chance to take advantage of your mistakes.”