Illini to battle No. 18 Southern Illinois for bragging rights

Bragging rights will be on the line Friday in Carbondale, Ill., as the Fighting Illini battle the No. 18 Salukisat Charlotte West Stadium.

State pride is something Illinois native and Southern Illinois head coach Kerri Blaylock takes seriously.

“I grew up an Illini fan, and I think that you want to compete against the biggest Division I state school,” Blaylock said. “For recruiting, or just for pride, you want to compete well against the state school. I think it’s always a big game for us, and we do not take it lightly just because it’s non-conference.”

Illinois head coach Terri Sullivan isn’t too concerned about the contest’s recruiting implications, but she isn’t taking it lightly either.

“Our recruiting is we recruit the best players from all over the country, but I do think every time we do take the field you want to defend your pride,” Sullivan said. “And there could be obviously a great sense of pride when you’re playing a fellow state school, whether it’s bragging rights or whatever it might be.

“I think that the University of Illinois is THE school in the state of Illinois, and so everybody gets really geared up to play us,” Sullivan added. “(Southern Illinois is) obviously a well respected team, they’re in the top 20 in softball, really well-coached, and they’ve got tough kids, so it’s always a really great battle for us.”

The Salukis (13-1) opened the season with 11 straight wins, their lone loss coming against No. 1 Alabama.

Blaylock credits her team’s consistent pitching and defense with allowing the offense to “settle in” and do the rest.

As for their offense, second baseman Alicia Garza leads the way for the Salukis. The junior is hitting .404 through 14 games and has eight RBIs.

Senior Katie McNamara anchors the pitching staff, boasting a 6-0 record and 0.00 ERA.

The Illini (12-7) boast an offense to be reckoned with, though. Sophomore second baseman Danielle Zymkowitz is hitting .444 and has knocked in nine runs. Left fielder Hollie Pinchback isn’t far behind. The sophomore has driven in 13 and is hitting .442.

“Offensively, they’re always a nightmare for the opponent,” Blaylock said. “When you play Illinois you just know that you better be ready because they’re never going to quit. They’re going to keep coming at you.”

The chance to defend Illinois pride in state has added meaning for Illinois now wearing orange and blue, like shortstop Ashley Conrad.

“I think it means way more to me because those girls have no idea what Southern is even like,” Conrad said. “It’s more important for them to play Cal and stuff than I realize because they all know girls, so it depends on who you’re playing. I have friends who play for all Illinois schools. On every single Illinois school except Southern, I have a friend.”

But the Illini players from out of state are catching on fast.

“I’m a freshman out-of-stater, so I don’t really know a lot about it,” first baseman Meredith Hackett said. “But I know to the Illinois girls it’s a big deal because they want to be known as the school in Illinois. And me here now, I want to be known as the best school because it just is a pride thing.”