Illinois softball perfect in Big Ten

By Kate Munson

When left fielder Hollie Pinchback stepped up to the plate in the third inning Saturday against Michigan State, her team held a 6-0 advantage and had scored four times already in the inning. But that didn’t change the sophomore’s approach.

“I was really trying to focus on making the most of the strikes (Michigan State senior Megan Hair) was pitching. (I) didn’t even realize the bases were loaded, and we had two outs when it happened,” Pinchback said. “And then I didn’t even realize the wind was really bad.

“But it felt great. I was really excited about it,” she added.

The grand slam was the first of Pinchback’s career and capped off an eight-run inning for the Illini (18-8), giving the team the run-rule advantage by the third inning of a game that was threatened by weather.

“For us, hearing you need to get to the fifth inning, it was more like ‘why don’t we just run-rule them and call it a game instead of just getting canceled because of the weather,” Pinchback said. “It wasn’t like we went at it with a different approach because of the weather, but it was nice to kind of pull it together and the weather to be happening at the same time.”

Illinois scored three more runs in the fourth en route to a 13-3 victory over the Spartans.

“Our whole lineup had very good at bats (Sunday) and that was real key to keep coming at a team that also thrives on offense and scoring,” head coach Terri Sullivan said.

“We took the lead and never looked back and never felt that the lead was sufficient and that’s also important at this point in the conference season.”

With the victory, the Illini opened Big Ten play at 3-0, a first in program history.

For junior right fielder Hope Howell, the accomplishment speaks volumes about her team.

“My freshman year we lost my first Big Ten game, and then my sophomore year we split in our first outing,” Howell said. “(I’m) just excited about it because, I mean, it just shows how different this team is from any other team that we’ve had since I’ve been here.”

The feat is just a small step toward the goals the Fighting Illini have for the season, however.

“It’s definitely nice having that (record) behind you, knowing you’re not having to work from behind,” Pinchback said.

“Each game is an accomplishment, but it just makes the next game that much more important to just put another win under our belt to help ourselves out to get to the postseason and actually keep playing throughout all of May and June.”

The first two victories against Big Ten foes came last Saturday and Sunday as the Illini swept Penn State in a two-game series at Eichelberger Field.

If sweeping their three Big Ten contests wasn’t enough, the Orange and Blue also protected their home field against Loyola in an 11-inning marathon Tuesday.

Howell provided the extra-inning heroics, hitting a three-run walk-off home run for the 7-4 victory. But the Lithonia, Ga., native was just glad to end the long contest.

“I hadn’t done anything the entire game, so I just really wanted to see the ball. I just went in trying to have a better at-bat and trying to see the ball,” Howell said.

“I actually didn’t know it went out until (I heard) all my teammates. The first thought in my head was, ‘Oh, it’s over,’ the ball and the game.”

Despite a loss to No. 23 DePaul on Thursday, the Fighting Illini still feel things are going their way.

“We feel good about what our team is doing to focus on innings and focus on growing as players at practice,” Sullivan said.

“Obviously when you have a good start you feel like you have some momentum and the next step is to keep it by continuing to play well, but it’s a long road ahead of us.”