Iowa ends softball’s season at Big Ten tourney

By Meghan Montemurro

The Iowa Hawkeyes have been a thorn in Illinois’ side on the softball diamond.

Iowa swept both games against the Illini in Urbana to close out the regular season, outscoring the Orange and Blue 17-8. For a third time in less than one week, the two squads faced off, however, this time extending the season was on the line in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament, held in Evanston, Ill., on Friday. A fast start by the Hawkeyes’ offense put the game away early as the Illini fell 9-1 in five innings.

Despite jumping out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning, Illinois sophomore starting pitcher Ashley Wright couldn’t slow down Iowa’s hitters, who responded with three runs of their own in the bottom of the inning.

“We wanted to come out and focus on what we do well and that’s hit the ball well, and I thought we started it out with some good at-bats and being aggressive scoring in that first inning,” Illinois head coach Terri Sullivan said of the team’s game plan. “We couldn’t get a two-out hit or get a rally going once they got a bigger lead. (Iowa) hit the ball well and we had too many walks for a conference tournament game. We really got beat by a better team today.”

Wright (8-9) didn’t last much longer – only two-thirds of an inning – surrendering four earned runs on five hits and two walks while taking the loss. The lefty was given the starting nod instead of senior Claire DeVreese in what would end up being the latter’s final game wearing the Orange and Blue. Sullivan said recent performances influenced her decision in choosing the game’s starter.

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“Ashley’s been throwing well these past few weeks, throwing the best of our pitching staff in game play and practices,” Sullivan said. “She did really well there initially, and then they got to her and starting hitting.”

DeVreese came on in relief, but did not fare much better than her teammate, only remaining in the game for 1 1-3 innings. Four Hawkeyes scored on two hits and two walks before sophomore Christine Christopoulos came in to close out the game.

Iowa (37-19, 14-6 Big Ten) and its steady pitching managed to quell the Illinois bats (30-32, 8-12) behind the steady arm of Brittany Weil (26-12). As of May 4, the Hawkeyes were eighth in the nation in ERA with 1.14. Before facing Iowa, the Illini hadn’t been pressed for runs, ranking 26th in the nation in scoring with 5.43 runs per game and eighth in home runs per game with 1.25.

In Friday’s showdown, however, Iowa was the team with the pop in its bats as three different batters connected for long balls.

“I have to give (Iowa) credit for hitting the ball well. That’s what a confident team does at this time of the year,” Sullivan said. “But being ahead in the count is important especially against a team that can hit, and we didn’t do a great job with that.”

While Illinois only managed to have one runner cross the plate, the team did manage to connect for seven base hits. Senior shortstop Angelena Mexicano accounted for two – both for doubles – and finished her final game 2-for-3. Sullivan has come to expect this type of play from her shortstop even when she isn’t hitting home runs.

With her season and career now over, Mexicano has her accomplishments to hold onto. The San Jose, Calif., native, leads the NCAA in home runs with 24 – also setting the Big Ten single-season record – and is third in home runs per game with .39 and fifth in runs per game at 1.07.

“(Mexicano’s) All-Big Ten in my book and obviously has something no one else does and that’s a record in a great softball conference, so we are proud of her,” Sullivan said.

Before the start of the Big Ten Tournament, three Illini were recognized by the conference Thursday. Senior third baseman Shanna Diller was named first-team All-Big Ten after hitting .400 with five home runs, 12 RBIs and 17 runs scored in conference play. The Bloomington, Ill., native, is the first player for Illinois to garner first-team honors since first baseman Jenna Hall and pitcher Amanda Fortune in 2004.

Both senior center fielder Sarah Bryers and sophomore right fielder Hope Howell were named second-team All-Big Ten. Illinois’ Big Ten Sportsmanship Award was given to senior utility player Katie Gaitros.

“Sarah Bryers, I’m real proud of what she did because she started off slow offensively and then just caught on fire like you can’t believe and ended up being the leading RBI producer among the outfielders in the Big Ten,” Sullivan said.

With the season now over, Sullivan reflected on the team’s up-and-down performances and “bright future.”

“We felt that we had some big wins over some teams in the Pac-10 and we played one of the toughest schedules in the country,” Sullivan said. “Coming into the Big Ten you just need to play better and to have a little bit better of everything — better pitching, more timely hitting, solid defense – but we didn’t back down to any team we played, win or lose. Young players did some terrific things for us this season. Our returning players will have their sights set on working hard this summer and ready to win a championship.”