Softball to host Big Ten foes



By Rich Mayor

It’s gut-check time for Illinois softball as it approaches one of the more important four-game stretches of its season.

The Illini (24-23, 3-7 Big Ten) will take on Minnesota and Wisconsin at Eichelberger Field at Martin Stadium this weekend to conclude their nine-game homestand. The team is currently 2-3 during the stretch.

The importance of the weekend lies in the Big Ten standings, in which Illinois occupies ninth place. The top eight teams in the conference gain entrance to the Big Ten Tournament, which takes place May 8-10. The remaining three teams have to watch from home.

To leapfrog at least one spot in the standings, the Illini will need to shore up their inconsistencies on defense and in the circle, problems that have plagued the offensively superpowered team all year long.

“You have to go with what your team’s strengths are, and we feel offense is a strength of ours,” head coach Terri Sullivan said. “But you can’t always trust it, so our pitchers just need to execute their pitches, place their pitches well and trust their defense.

“The ball is put in play this time of year, so it’s just bearing down and being aggressive; if any mistakes are made (we need to) keep being aggressive and picking teammates up. We want a weekend of making (Minnesota and Wisconsin) earn things off of us.”

The Golden Gophers (21-12, 4-4) and Badgers (12-33, 2-10) are two conference opponents who aren’t among the Big Ten’s elite and will be good tests for Illinois.

“We expect everybody’s best,” senior shortstop Angelena Mexicano said. “We hope to get their best because it’s so much better and more competitive then. We’re going to give our best as well, and hopefully the games go our way.”

Minnesota’s best will be the greater test, as the team has six different players with more than 10 RBIs. To experience success in the series, the Illini must overcome the golden arm of Briana Hassett, the Golden Gopher ace who has produced a 14-5 record, including a 1.99 ERA and 180 strikeouts.

Wisconsin has had a rough season, as its overall and conference records indicate. The Badgers enter Sunday’s doubleheader having lost 22 of their last 27 games.

The momentum Illinois gained after beating Illinois State into a 16-8 submission Wednesday will hopefully carry over into the four-game set this weekend in Urbana.

“We’re excited to be at home, and especially if we have a crowd like we did (against ISU),” Sullivan said. “The students, the community, the faculty, it was a great crowd and we want them all coming out this weekend. You’re going to see some hard-fought contests again. It’s do or die time.”