Illinois softball faces challenge in the Sunshine State

The Illinois softball team looks to build on a perfect start to the season as it travel to Tampa, Fla., to play in the University of South Florida Tournament this weekend.

The Illini will face Wright State, Pittsburgh, Binghamton, South Florida and No. 1 Tennessee as they participate in a tournament for the third year in a row. The team will be competing against tougher competition this weekend, for which head coach Terri Sullivan believes her team is ready.

“We have to play in the moment, game by game,” Sullivan said. “We’re excited to play games and execute our game plan on both the offensive and defensive side of the game.”

Illinois is 7-9 all-time against the field it will compete against this weekend. It will try to improve its 3-5 all-time record against Big East Tournament Champions South Florida while trying to its 4-1 all-time record against Pittsburgh. It will be the first time the Illini compete against Binghamton and Wright State.

This weekend will mark the second season in a row that the Illini will compete against the No. 1 team in the nation. The Illini will try to upset the Volunteers when they play on Saturday for their first win against Tennessee, as they are 0-3 all-time.

The difficult schedule to begin the season will not faze the Illini, however. When players are recruited to come play at Illinois, they know the amount of travel and difficult opponents they will face due to the winter months.

As the Illini went 5-0 during the opening weekend of the season at the Rosemont Rumble, they won in different ways by using different phases of the game. The team won a few games with a pitching staff that recorded a 1.91 ERA as well as a defense that had a fielding percentage of .988. 

The game plan heading into a tournament weekend is different compared with that of conference weekends. While in conference play, Illinois plays one team during the weekend, it has to prepare for five different teams with five different lineups and pitchers this weekend.

This is when various lineups and young players matter the most.

The Illini hope that the underclassmen, such as Ruby Rivera and Brandi Needham, continue to build upon strong debuts. Needham went 3-0, with a 0.79 ERA in her first weekend of pitching in her collegiate career. Rivera opened the season hitting a team-high .568 with two RBIs while making 15 assists and turning two double plays at shortstop. Both players are looking to focus on the right mind set to help carry the team as they face tougher competition.

The Illini will set the challenge of starting strong as well as finishing plays with defense. They are confident and looking forward to facing big programs, as they see it a good opportunity to demonstrate the kind of team they are.

“Our goals are our goals,” sophomore Remeny Perez said. “We’re going to stick with them no matter who we play.”

Michal can be reached at [email protected] and @bennythebull94.