Illini softball takes on Illinois State in battle for bragging rights

When the Illini softball team hosts Illinois State on Tuesday, Illini shortstop Ashley Conrad will see a familiar face in the opponent’s dugout.

Before college, the Illinois native spent most of her career playing on the same team as Redbird sophomore outfielder Jessica Roche, and their relationship goes beyond just that of teammates.

“Actually, one of my best friends is on Illinois State,” Conrad said. “I played with her every year up until college. We played travel ball every year together but my very last year.”

Both girls played at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, Ill., where they claimed third place in the IHSA State Tournament their junior year. After years of being teammates, they rarely see each other now.

“(I’m) definitely (excited) because I don’t get to see her much, I don’t get to talk to her,” Conrad said.

“I mean, last year it was cool, we talked to each other at the airport all the time, and that was really the only time I ever got to see her.”

The last time Illinois (20-10, 5-2 Big Ten) faced the Redbirds (17-15), the Illini made quick work of their in-state foes in an 11-3 run-rule victory on March 17. It’s all part of one of the Orange and Blue’s bigger goals for the season.

“That has been a big goal of our team is to really work on owning the teams within the state, and that’s a big goal,” head coach Terri Sullivan said.

No. 22 DePaul is the lone team from Illinois to get the best of the Fighting Illini this season. The Blue Demons defeated the Illini, 6-2, on March 26.

For Conrad, part of the fun of playing in-state teams is facing familiar opponents from before her days in Orange and Blue.

“Especially if you’re playing against people who aren’t really your friend, but you know them from other teams in Illinois, it’s kind of you want to prove that your team’s better,” Conrad said. “Obviously we want to own the state of Illinois.”

Defending Illinois pride isn’t lost on players from other states, either.

West Hills, Calif., native Danielle Zymkowitz recognizes the rivalry, and the second baseman knows Illinois State will be motivated Tuesday after losing to the Illini the last time around.

“We only played five innings against them,” Zymkowitz said. “We just got to come out with the same intensity as we did in the first game against them.

“They’re like our big rivals, I’m not going to lie,” the sophomore added.

Leading Illinois State is junior shortstop Niki Stansell, who is hitting .333 with 17 RBIs.Despite the Redbirds’ 1-7 road record, the Fighting Illini are taking the nonconference game seriously.

“I think a single game is a piece of cake for these guys to come out and play,” Sullivan said of her team.

“But, you know, mentally staying sharp and really that consistency is so key at this time of the year because every team has got a lot of games under their belt, every team is working on, game in and game out, playing the best, playing at their best.

“We want to be at a high level of softball every game throughout the entire week, and we’ll need to do that against a good schedule,” Sullivan added.