Illini softball ready for final match-up before Big Ten play

Only one game stands between the Illinois softball team and the start of the Big Ten competition. But the Illini aren’t feeling a time crunch. They’re just ready to get back to game action at Illinois State.

After all four games at the Adidas Invitational in South Carolina were canceled because of the weather last weekend, the Illini (13-7) returned to Champaign earlier than expected. Instead of a tournament, the Fighting Illini got in an outdoor scrimmage at Eichelberger Field at Martin Stadium.

“We were all just disappointed because we wanted to play, and we had to come back here and play each other, which is definitely not as much fun,” senior catcher Lana Armstrong said. “We just have that competitive drive that not playing for one weekend isn’t really going to disappear on us.”

The Illini aren’t looking at preparation for the Big Ten alone, though. They’re still determined to make a statement against their in-state competition.

“It’s a really big rival. I mean, we always have really big rivals with all the in-state schools, just to prove that we’re the best team, and so we have to come out hard,” sophomore left fielder Hollie Pinchback said. “There’s definitely a chip on our shoulder whenever we play an in-state team.”

Illinois State (13-10) boasts a balanced offensive attack, with five players hitting over .300. Sophomore third baseman Abby Olson is the leading run producer, driving in 18 while hitting .323 with four homers.

The Illinois offense will have to contend with ISU freshman Jordan Birch, who is 7-3 with a 1.62 ERA in 65 innings of work.

Head coach Terri Sullivan wants her team to approach the mid-week contest like any other, expecting its opponent to play at its best.

“They’re right down the road from us, and traditionally there’s just been great games against them all the time. They’re a well-respected program and have always been well coached with tough players that they never seem to worry when they’re behind or when they’re ahead,” Sullivan said. “So we just expect them to be at their best and that’s where we’re going to need to be.”

For Armstrong, the importance of the game goes beyond the final tune-up before Big Ten or even playing an in-state foe.

“I want to set a precedent for mid-week games this season,” Armstrong said. “I feel like a little bit in the past, people were like, ‘Oh, well, it’s not conference, it doesn’t matter as much.’ But those wins you get in the middle of the week, they add up to a lot as far as win-loss record.”

Down to their last game before the beginning of a home stretch with conference competition, the Illini and Sullivan are looking for more offense and key leaders to step up.

“We obviously want to be at a point in our season where we’re getting things done in the moment when called upon to get something done offensively,” Sullivan said. “Obviously Lana Armstrong behind the plate is a big leader for us both offensively and defensively. I’d like to see a designated player really step up and hit for us more. I think Katrina Ross is really due to break out and to show what she’s capable of doing at the plate as a senior.

“We feel really good about what we’ve done to this point and at practice, and now it comes down to getting even a little better every game that you play,” Sullivan added.