Illinois softball sweeps Penn State in final regular season series

The+Illinois+softball+team+cheers+after+a+hit+by+Allie+Bauch+%28not+pictured%29+during+the+second+game+against+Michigan+at+Eichelberger+Field+on+April+26.+The+Illini+lost+6-5.

The Illinois softball team cheers after a hit by Allie Bauch (not pictured) during the second game against Michigan at Eichelberger Field on April 26. The Illini lost 6-5.

By Daniel Dexter

In the team’s final regular season series, the Illinois softball team was missing an important part of its dugout: the head coach.

The NCAA suspended head coach Terri Sullivan for two games for inappropriate conduct due to an argument with umpires during the series finale last weekend against Michigan. Despite missing their coach, the Illini (23-25, 7-16 Big Ten) managed to pull off a sweep and their first Big Ten series win this season at Penn State (14-34, 5-18).

“(Sullivan) might not have been there, but she was there with us in spirit,” pitcher Brandi Needham said. “She gave us a really great pep talk before the game, and it got us going. We just carried that momentum right into the game.”

Needham started the first game of the series from the circle and tossed a complete game shutout, allowing five hits throughout the game. Her defense rallied behind her with three double plays in the game, helping keep the shutout intact.

The strong defensive outings continued all weekend for the Illini as junior Shelese Arnold picked up where Needham started. She also pitched a complete game in the team’s series-clinching 6-1 victory Saturday. Needham finished off the Nittany Lions by the same score in the series finale Sunday.

“Brandi and (Shelese) threw a lot of pitches that ended up being groundballs,” second baseman Allie Bauch said. “They were both just hitting their spots and rolling the hitters. It makes our job easier.”

Bauch had a strong weekend herself. The leadoff batter led the Illinois offense with a home run in each of the team’s three games this weekend. The team had a total of six home runs during the weekend, half of which came during the 5-0 victory in the series opener.

Assistant coach Katie O’Connell said the team’s big hitting came as a result of playing with a more aggressive style than it has in the past.

“They were attacking and they were just going after it,” O’Connell said. “They have the ability, and we have many strong kids. When they get after it, good things happen for us.”

O’Connell believes the team needs to continue with the consistency that it played with this weekend. The Illini have put up similar performances this season, but struggled to keep it up during conference play.

Bauch agreed with her coach and added that the players tried to clear their heads after the team’s recent struggles and go out and play to the best of their abilities.

“At this point, we have nothing to lose,” Bauch said. “It’s time to just have fun and do our thing. I think we all worked well together, and we are all on the same page with that.”

With momentum building, the team hopes to make up for lost ground in the Big Ten Tournament the following weekend in Evanston, Ill. Illinois will play Iowa in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday. 

Sullivan will be with her team the whole way through as Illinois looks to get revenge for some of the earlier losses.

“We were playing very, very well at the start of the year, and coming into conference play, we were feeling really good,” Sullivan said. “There were a lot of really good teams in the Big Ten that beat us, and we also didn’t play our best softball during that time in the season. We’ve got to always be in the present, and I like where this team is at heading into the conference tournament.”

Daniel can be reached at [email protected] and @ddexter23.