Illinois softball opens at home with impromptu double header

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Illinois’ Kylie Johnson attempts to hit the ball during the game against Michigan at Eichelberger Field on April 26. The Illini lost 6-5.

By Cole Henke

Two weeks off was apparently too much for the Illinois softball team. After one week of no competition, the Illini scheduled a doubleheader with North Dakota State for Tuesday afternoon.

The NCAA puts a cap on the number of games a team can play in one season at 56 games. Games canceled for weather or other reasons do not count towards the cap. Before the doubleheader, the Illini were scheduled for 53 games this season, but two cancellations at the Under Armour Invitational in south Florida this season opened up two more games for the Illini to play.

The doubleheader will be the home opener for the Illini. According to junior outfielder Kylie Johnson, the home opener will be an opportunity for the Illini to turn their back on the first part of the season.

“We definitely learned some things about ourselves both as individuals and as a team in the first part of the season,” Johnson said. “We are ready to put that part of the season behind us, though. None of us were happy with our records, and we are ready to start fresh.”

The week off allowed the Illini to get refocused and mentality prepared for conference play. After coming back from their last tournament in Los Angeles, the Illini took two days off from practice. After those two days, they went back to work. The team focused mainly on fundamentals and situational drills.

Opponents have been doing most of their damage to the Illini in one inning, so head coach Terri Sullivan puts the team through situational drills to try and replicate the pressure that comes in games.

The doubleheader comes three days before Illinois’ Big Ten opener against Minnesota, but Sullivan and the team know that wins against the Bison would be a great start to the second part of the season.

North Dakota State has had an impressive season so far, with a 17-5 record and wins over three Big Ten teams – Iowa, Purdue and Indiana – as well as a win against No. 17 Washington.

The Bison are led by senior pitcher Krista Menke. Menke has been dominant this season with a 2.24 ERA and a 13-2 record in 18 appearances. Menke leads the country in strikeouts (178) and is third in the nation in shutouts with five. Sullivan is expecting a big challenge from Menke and the Bison.

“They are a great team,” Sullivan said. “If you look into what they have done so far this year, you can tell that they are one of the top teams in the country, and (Menke) has been fantastic.”

The Bison are in the middle of a tour across the Midwest, as they spend their spring break playing 10 games in seven days across Illinois and Indiana.

The weather has not been a friend to North Dakota State this season either – seven of their games have been canceled this year because of weather.

The Illini jumped at the chance to play the Bison. Johnson and her teammates see it as both an opportunity to play a good team, and as a way to get a couple games under their belt before entering Big Ten play.

“This (doubleheader) will be good for us,” Johnson said. “It will give our younger players a few games to get adjusted to playing at home, and any chance you can get to play extra games, it is definitely a good thing.”

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