Rain dampens Illinois softball momentum as season ends in NCAA Regionals

Maybe it mattered. Maybe it didn’t. The Illinois softball team will never know, as that’s the nature of sports.

But the Illini do know they weren’t helped by the severe storm that halted their NCAA Regionals opener against Missouri in Columbia, Mo., on Friday evening. Leading 1-0 in the top of the first inning with two runners on base and two outs, the Illini were forced off the field as the game was postponed until Saturday morning.

When play resumed, the Tigers quickly got out of the jam and responded by scoring a run in their half of the first and two runs in the second inning en route to a 5-1 win.

Forced into an elimination game against No. 15 national seed DePaul later in the afternoon, Illinois couldn’t find any offense or momentum in a season-ending 6-0 loss and was left to wonder what could have been if not for the heavy rain Friday.

“We came out extremely fired up (Friday), and we jumped on them right off the bat,” said senior catcher Lana Armstrong. “You could see it on (Missouri’s) faces. They were surprised, they were shocked, and they were a little bit scared.”

“The whole night gave them a chance to regroup, and they came out and they weren’t having it anymore. It’s not that our fight wasn’t there, but we definitely didn’t have that same energy, the same jacked excitement as we did the first day,” Armstrong added.

Illinois struck first against Missouri when Hollie Pinchback’s RBI single plated Hope Howell, who had singled and advanced to second on a passed ball. With that coming Friday before the rain, the Illini’s lead lasted a long time in hours but not long on the scoreboard.

On Saturday morning, Missouri starter Chelsea Thomas retired Armstrong on a groundout with runners at first and second, and the Tigers tied it in the bottom of the first on a fielding error by Illinois shortstop Ashley Conrad. In the second inning, Gina Schneider’s two-run home run gave the Tigers the lead for good.

Thomas took over from there, throwing a complete game and allowing the one run on six hits and two walks while striking out three.

“You have to give credit to (Thomas),” Illinois head coach Terri Sullivan said. “We never really threatened much offensively … Offense is something you can never really trust. It can be hot and cold.”

The Illinois offense was cold against DePaul as well. The Illini got a runner to second base only once and managed just three hits against Blue Demon starter Becca Heteniak, who went the distance while striking out seven. Still, the game was scoreless into the fifth inning, when DePaul scored twice on a RBI double by Shea Warren and a RBI groundout from Jackie Tarulli-Fisher.

“We felt the game was there to take control of,” Sullivan said. “It was going to be a matter of who ignited the offense. We missed on doing that.”

“We never got that big hit in either of the games we played this weekend,” she added.

Illinois freshman pitcher Monica Perry struggled in her first postseason experience. She took the loss in each game and combined to throw 11 innings and allow 10 runs — seven earned ­— on 12 hits.

“I expected the hitters to be good, but I feel like we could have handled it better,” Perry said. “We used this year as a learning experience.”

With the loss, the Illini finished the year at 29-17, making their first NCAA Regionals appearance since 2004.

“I couldn’t have asked for much more out of my senior year,” Armstrong said. “We set a major, major stepping stone to set a tradition for years to come.”