Illinois softball opens with programs best start

By Charlotte Carroll

Though the Illinois softball team finished the weekend with its first two losses of the season, the Illini opened outdoor play at the USF Tournament in Tampa, Fla., with three straight wins resulting in the best start to a season in program history.

Illinois carried over the momentum from its opening weekend winning streak, earning eight straight wins and surpassing the previous record of six straight wins to begin a season.

“We had some quality at-bats and missed chances,” head coach Terri Sullivan said. “But we were ready to play. We were mentally focused. We’re really proud, as they brought that mental toughness.”

Illinois defeated Wright State 8-0 on Friday before beating Pittsburgh 2-0. With Friday’s wins, the Illini got their first two shutouts of the season from junior Shelese Arnold and freshman Brandi Needham, respectively, who gave up just seven hits combined to go along with seven total strikeouts. The win against Wright State was Arnold’s third career shutout.

The game against Pittsburgh was closer than the one against Wright State, as the Panthers had multiple situations to score, but ended up stranding nine players on base.

Sophomore Katie Repole went 3-for-4 on Friday after going not getting a hit last weekend. Working on mental prepartion, Repole adapted a more relax attitude.

“You need that first one when you’re struggling, and you can usually get it rolling,” Repole said. “You need just one, and it was nice to get that first hit.”

Saturday saw the winning streak continue for Illinois as the Illini took the first game 15-2 over Binghamton, before a 10-0 loss to No. 1 team, Tennessee. Playing in the last games of the day, the first pitch against Binghamton was not until 8 p.m., followed by a 10:40 p.m. start time to the Tennessee game.

Sophomores Allie Bauch and Remeny Perez got the game started by hitting back to back home runs, a feat never done before by a pair of Illini. Perez went 4-for-4 on the day. The Illini finished the game with a nine-run fifth inning, which helped account for the largest margin of victory since 2010.

Eleven Illinois players scored and the team had 17 hits total, a tie for fifth-most all time in the program’s history.

Though the mental preparation carried over to the Tennessee game, the runs did not, and the Illini were held scoreless for the first time this year. With such late games fatigue seemed only natural, but Sullivan said her team came ready to compete.

“We were really, really excited to face the challenge of playing them,” Sullivan said. “Especially a team that has clearly earned where they are right now. We expect to get out there and play great softball.”

The Illini limited Tennessee to just four hits over the first five innings, but an eight-run seventh inning cemented a loss for Arnold who pitched a complete game.

Where the Illini offense made history just hours earlier, they failed to score against Tennessee’s senior pitcher Ellen Renfroe, a two-time All-American who allowed just five hits, no walks and struck out 12 batters.

The Illini closed out the tournament looking for a win against host South Florida, but were defeated 2-1.

Needham lost her first game of the season to South Florida, and the Bulls’ senior pitcher Sara Nevins, an All-American and a member of the 2013 USA Softball Women’s National Team. South Florida’s winning run came from a two-out RBI single in the bottom of the seventh.

With the two losses, the Illini have decided to use those game situations as preparation for the next time it comes down to the final innings.

“It’s a learning experience,” Arnold said. “It’s never going to get easier, it’s going to get better, and I think next time we play someone like that, we’ll come out on top.” 

Charlotte can be reached at [email protected]