Illini prepare for big challenge vs. Bradley

Illinois softball head coach Terri Sullivan isn’t afraid to shake things up to keep her team playing at its best. She proved it against Illinois State on Tuesday, starting sophomore Audrey Gallien at shortstop.

The change worked out for the Illini on Tuesday, and Sullivan plans to continue to use Gallien in the role.

“I like players that put the team first, and I thought really everybody did that (Tuesday). But I really have to highlight the play of Audrey Gallien,” Sullivan said after the game. “It’s only about her second start at (shortstop), and she’s just so unselfish. There’s not a player on our team who I could say is more unselfish than her, and she’s got a great spirit about her.

“She made a great play in the whole that actually became key later in the game and was hot as a pistol. You know, she’s just waited for her time,” Sullivan added. “She and Ashley Conrad are splitting time there and really, hats off to her for leading us (Tuesday).”

Illinois (21-10, 5-2) isn’t done for the week yet, though. The Fighting Illini will battle Bradley at Eichelberger Field on Thursday before returning to Big Ten competition.

The Braves (15-16) may not be Big Ten foes, but Sullivan still expects a challenge.

“Bradley will be like Illinois State. They’re the same conference, they’re, I think, a resilient team and there’s a lot of pride in coming to Illinois’ field and playing our team,” Sullivan said. “We’ll expect them to be at their best, and we’re going to need to be a little bit better defensively than we were (Tuesday), but our team I know will come out ready to go.”

Senior first baseman Alycia Bachkora leads the Braves with 22 RBIs and four home runs while hitting .247. In the circle, Bradley relies on Ashley Birdsong. The senior is 9-6 with a 1.84 ERA.

For the Fighting Illini, the contest is a chance to work out a few issues before facing No. 16 Ohio State over the weekend.

“Against Bradley, I just need to work on my weaknesses,” freshman pitcher Monica Perry said. “I’m always trying to work on my off-speed, so I think it will be a good opportunity to do that and just get another win.”

The Orange and Blue will also be looking to improve their defensive performance in their second nonconference game this week.

“I’d like to see, obviously, less errors on the board,” Sullivan said. “We’ve been doing a nice job with that all year. A couple we had (Tuesday) came at a time where we’d had some pitching changes, so they just have to roll with changes and continue to support each other.”

For Illinois, Bradley provides a chance to make some adjustments. But the fact that it’s a midweek game against a nonconference opponent doesn’t mean the Fighting Illini will approach the matchup with any less intensity than usual.

“I feel like that’s something we’ve kind of struggled with in the past, but this year we just have a whole new attitude on the team; we’re just vicious,” senior catcher Lana Armstrong said. “It doesn’t matter who it is, we’re just going attack every single pitch of every game. It doesn’t matter who else is out there, we’re going to keep playing our game.”