Softball to battle Iowa

By Kate Munson

As regular-season play wraps up for Illini softball at home this weekend against Iowa, the team will be battling to stay in contention for the Big Ten Tournament. Only the top eight teams in the conference qualify for tournament play, with Illinois currently sitting in sixth.

Making the weekend even more notable will be the fifth annual World’s Largest Softball Tailgate on Saturday.

“There’s nothing like it in college softball,” head coach Terri Sullivan said. “It’s always been an electric environment. Our team loves to pull up and see the orange and blue flags flying everywhere. It’s going to be a great day.”

Last season, 1,445 fans attended the tailgate. This year’s event will feature free T-shirts, live music, games and contests, as well as free admission to the game.

“We’re real excited about the day and the weekend,” Sullivan said.

Entering the weekend, the Illini (30-29, 8-10 Big Ten) are coming off an impressive performance in the second contest of Wednesday’s doubleheader against Southern Illinois (27-23, 12-8 Missouri Valley Conference) after losing the first game.

In the circle, sophomore pitcher Ashley Wright went seven innings, allowing just four hits while not surrendering a run. But the big story of the night was senior shortstop Angelena Mexicano, who belted homer No. 24 of the season to lead off the fifth inning of the nightcap.

With the blast, Mexicano became the Big Ten leader for home runs in a single season.

“I saw the ball very well and right when I hit it I just felt amazing. I felt a great, warm, exciting feeling,” Mexicano said. “It’s overwhelming. It’s just a great honor to have set this bar, this record.”

But the Hawkeyes (36-17, 12-6) will present a challenge for the Illini, especially in the circle, where they boast a team ERA of just 1.10, good for second best in the Big Ten behind Michigan.

Leading Iowa offensively is junior third baseman Colleen McGlaughlin, who is batting .325 through 53 games with 29 RBIs on seven long balls and eight doubles.

The Hawkeyes will need to be on top of their game to keep up with Mexicano and the rest of the Illini.

“We need solid pitching, solid defense and to play aggressively,” Iowa head coach Gayle said.

“We need to put runs up because I fully expect to see that from them.”

Illinois is excited about facing the Hawkeyes at home to conclude its regular season, but players know the games will be a challenge.

“Iowa is a team that is not going to beat themselves,” Sullivan said.

“The games mean a lot for us and for them, and we always expect to see them at their best and we know that we need to be at ours. We’re looking forward to two really fun games.”

But what will happen after the regular season is over? When it comes to looking toward the postseason, the team is taking it one step at a time.

“We’re in a position where we can finish in the top five in the conference, which is a great feat,” Sullivan said. “We want to just control own destiny right now and that’s the next game we play.”