Illinois softball looking for the heart in Lone Star state

By Charlotte Carroll

When the Illinois softball team travels to Arlington, Texas, this weekend for the UTA Tournament, freshman Brandi Needham will have both friendly competition and family to greet her. 

Needham will face a trio of players who played for the same travel team system she did in high school and now play for Texas-Arlington but will have a rooting contingent in the crowd to cheer her on as well.  

The Dripping Springs, Texas, native is one of three team members who will get to go home to Texas this weekend as the team prepares for only the second trip to Arlington in program history. Sophomore Katie Repole is from Bulverde, Texas, while junior Jami Schkade grew up in Albany, Texas. 

Illinois will face Texas Tech, Creighton and Texas-Arlington once and Missouri-Kansas City twice this weekend. Illinois has only played four games against these teams, going 1-2 against Texas Tech with a sole victory in the pair’s last matchup in 2009 and a lone win against Texas Arlington in 2003. 

After losing to No. 1 Tennessee and South Florida, Illinois is looking to tighten its play in later innings by reviewing last weekend’s games and bringing those lessons to practice as learning experiences to transition into this weekend’s games.

“I’m really mixing in speeds because I feel if I had done that more, it would have been more effective in my pitching,” Needham said. “So I’m really just focusing on little things like hitting corners more. The last pitch where (South Florida) scored the run off of, it was a little too much on the plate. So I’m really trying to pinpoint my spots.”

The Illini are fine-tuning their physical abilities but have also looked more to the mental aspects of softball that head coach Terri Sullivan believes to be extremely important. 

“Sundays are a really big day for us throughout the year,” Sullivan said. “It’s always the last games of a tournament. We call them championship Sundays and a lot of times it comes down to heart. So we need to probably be focused a little bit about that, but just being physically and mentally ready to go.”

The Illini have no ranked teams to play in this week’s lineup but aren’t overlooking the toughness of the competition. Creighton is coming off a 6-4 win against previously ranked No. 24 California. 

“We learned a lot against Tennessee because we know we have what it takes to compete with some of the best teams out there,” sophomore Allie Bauch said. “I think we realized the potential we have as a team, and it’s kind of like a motivator for us this week, and we’re ready to take on any competition now.” 

The pitching staff recorded a 2.97 ERA, while the defense had a fielding percentage of .972 during last weekend’s USF Tournament. The Illini had a .303 batting average. The Illini will look to improve upon their Big Ten-leading seven double plays.  

Illinois is looking to avoid the sloppiness that Sullivan said played a role in its losses to Tennessee and South Florida by taking each game as it comes with a pitch-by-pitch mind set.

“We have goals going into every game,” Sullivan said. “We really expect that at this point, it’s the third weekend of college softball, so everyone has got their feet wet and has some game experience under them. So we’re not going to take anyone for granted, and we really look forward to getting back out there.”

Charlotte can be reached at [email protected]