Softball completes sweep in Las Vegas

In a dazzling display of offensive firepower and dominance on the mound, the Illini softball team steam-rolled all five of its opponents to take home the title at this weekend’s UNLV Sportco Kick-Off Classic.

At first glance, offense would seem to have been the key for coach Terri Sullivan’s squad, as the Illini mowed down opponents by averaging 8.6 runs a contest.

Sullivan said she thought synergy was key.

“Your offense plays consistently when your defense is doing the same,” Sullivan said. “We really did have sound defense in the infield. The corners and middle infield played well and got some big outs. It’s hard when you can only see the score on paper, but a couple of times when our opponents had a chance to make a run here or there, the defense shut them down.”

Freshman Pepper Gay, who tossed five shutout innings in the team’s 10-0 blowout of Kent State on Sunday, agreed with Sullivan.

“When you have a cushion, you’re more relaxed on the mound. You know you can throw your game, and you’re not worried about what the other team is doing because they have to beat you when you’re beating them already,” Gay said.

Gay and fellow freshman Jackie Guy teamed up to capture the Illini’s third shutout of the season. Illinois blanked UNLV, 8-0, on Friday and Loyola Maramount by the same score on Saturday. In addition to those wins, Illinois topped Cal State Bakersfield, 3-2, on Friday and Long Beach State, 14-4, on Saturday.

Gay and Guy played a critical role in the team’s 5-0 start, complementing ace Monica Perry, who likewise was lights out in Las Vegas.

Sullivan lauded Gay and Guy, as well as Perry and senior Ashley Wright, for the their collective ability to hit spots consistently — and to keep the ball in the park.

“Our pitching is exciting. They had an (incredible) ERA on the weekend,” Sullivan said. “We really stuck to our game plan and … didn’t give too many at-bats away against some really explosive offensive teams.”

Sunday’s offensive barrage was more good news for an already red-hot lineup. Sophomore third baseman Kelley Wedel put the Illini on the board in grand fashion in the fourth inning, hitting her first home run of the season to put the Orange and Blue up 4-0. The blast gave her nine RBIs for the year and sparked the team’s 10-run barrage over the final four innings.

“I just was thinking about getting the ball in play because we had runners in scoring position with one out,” Wedel said. “Right before I stepped in the box, I took a deep breath, and was just like ‘I’m going to do this,’ saw a good pitch and swung and it went over the fence. I wasn’t trying to hit a home run, I was just trying to get a runner in, trying not to do too much.”

Wedel added that the team’s hot streak at the plate has been due to a lineup-wide willingness to put the team’s cause over racking up gaudy personal stats.

“(The focus is) not so much as getting a hit but moving runners over, advancing runners, and that’s something coach Sullivan has been stressing a lot over the month and a half we’ve been practicing … We have a lot of faith in each other to pick each other up,” she said.