Illini look to shut door against Florida foes

After losing an early lead in Wednesday’s nail-biting 8-7 win against in-state foe Illinois State, the Illinois softball team has made finishing teams off a new priority.

Junior catcher Audrey Gallien said putting teams away is a matter of “taking things inning-by-inning and focusing on winning that individual inning.”

Senior captain Hope Howell added: “The only thing that gets you into the postseason is your record. Now with the (Big Ten) Tournament taken away, it’s really important that you have a good record … Half of it is a postseason thing and half of it is a pride thing. We’re different this year, and we want to show that.”

The Illini head into this weekend’s USF-The Game Tournament in Tampa, Fla., ready to take their games inning-by-inning.

The marquee game of the weekend figures to be the Sunday finale between No. 21 Illinois and a battle-tested No. 18 Oklahoma State team that has faced eight ranked opponents this season.

The Cowgirls (22-6) are led by a potent offensive lineup headlined by the speedy Mariah Gearhart and the power-hitting Julie Ward. As a sophomore, Ward leads the team with seven home runs and 38 RBIs, while the junior Gearhart has swiped 12 bases from the leadoff spot.

Junior Anna Whiddon leads the Cowgirls on the mound, where she has compiled a 13-3 record with a 1.88 ERA. Whiddon has played a number of roles for Cowgirls head coach Rich Wieligman, as the right-hander has notched both of the team’s saves this year as well.

Junior Danielle Zymkowitz continues to pace the Illini with a .444 average, while sophomore Kelley Wedel has continued her hot streak at the plate, batting .412 with a team-high 22 RBIs.

Gallien, who hit a solo shot against Illinois State on Wednesday, said keeping teams out of their defensive rhythm has been a point of emphasis for the Illini, as evidenced by the five errors committed by the Redbirds in Wednesday’s game.

“I think that starts with being aggressive on offense,” Gallien said. “We were really pushing extra bases today, and I think that’s what made them throw the ball around.”

“I’m happy how we handled the pressure when they put runs on the board,” associated head coach Donna DiBiase said. “We kept coming at them, took advantage of their mistakes and got it done.”

The Illini begin the tournament with Friday games against Florida Gulf Coast and Florida Atlantic. Saturday’s slate features Syracuse and Dartmouth, and Sunday’s contest with Oklahoma State marks the final game of the tournament.

The Illini hope to improve on taking matters into their own hands this weekend, Howell said.

“We need to work on not letting the umpires dictate our games,” Howell said. “We had some walks today, some home runs, and that’s good, but things like striking out looking (can’t happen).”