Softball aims for consistent play heading into Florida tournament

By Rich Mayor

Don’t call this weekend’s Miken Classic a soft spot in the softball team’s schedule. The Illini will hear none of it.

Last weekend’s Golden Panther Invitational included two losses at the hands of the No. 1 team in the country, Alabama. The Illini fell 6-0 and 2-0 to the Crimson Tide, respectively, but found their confidence did not waver in the face of adversity.

“Our team is still very confident, and we’ve been confident since the start of the season,” head coach Terri Sullivan said. “We know our schedule is really one of the best in the country.”

Illinois (8-7) has faced some of the nation’s toughest teams through the first 15 games of the season. Losses against No. 1 Alabama, No. 9 Oklahoma and No. 23 UNLV contrasted an upset victory against No. 6 UCLA.

“We’ve played a terrific schedule, and we’ve been challenged,” Sullivan said. “We’ve certainly seen the nation’s best. We’ve won a game at that level against UCLA. We’ve been in a tight one against Alabama, who’s No. 1, so now it’s just a matter of putting it all together. That’s our plan going into this weekend.”

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    Enter the Miken Classic in Boca Raton, Fla. With four tournament games and a potential championship game against unheralded opponents such as Florida Atlantic (6-9), Bethune-Cookman (1-12), Central Michigan (3-1) and Rutgers (2-2), the Illini will look to increase their win total but are careful to not overlook their opponents.

    “We can’t let down at all, we can’t take teams lightly even if they aren’t ranked,” senior third baseman Shanna Diller said. “Anybody can beat anybody on any given day.”

    But she also echoed a confidence that the Illini have earned after a brutal opening stretch.

    “I think it’s really prepared us going in and we’ve lost quite a few close games, especially to ranked teams, which shows that we’re right there with the best of the best,” Diller said. “Going into this tournament, we expect nothing less than 5-0.”

    To achieve that goal, both Sullivan and Diller preached the importance of one word: consistency.

    “It comes down to consistency,” Diller said. “We need to be consistent and come out strong from the get-go and carry that through the tournament.”

    Sullivan echoed similar sentiments, but added there is pressure on the bottom half of the lineup to generate offense.

    Consistency was stressed on the defensive side of the diamond as well.

    “Defensively, we’ve had some games in which we’ve put together some terrific defense in pressure situations, from the infielders, outfielders and pitchers,” Sullivan said. “Again we’re just looking for that consistency, mostly with making the routine plays and our pitchers throwing aggressively every inning and every pitch.”

    As Illinois plans to return from the Sunshine State undefeated and with a Miken Classic championship trophy, one word comes to mind – it begins with a “c.”