Illinois softball looks to cure Big Ten blues

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Illinois’ Carly Thomas (25) swings for the ball during the softball game v. North Dakota State at Eichelberger Field on Tuesday, Mar. 17, 2015. Illinois lost 3-0.

The Illinois softball team has historically been unsuccessful in Big Ten play, finishing with a losing-conference record in each of the past three seasons.

Last year, the Illini finished 7-16 in the Big Ten. The stretch included an eight-game drought; however, head coach Terri Sullivan’s team did show a spark midway through conference play, when it took the first game of a three-game series against then-No. 4 Michigan.

If the team doesn’t make changes quickly, this year’s Illinois team is on track to continue the struggling trend. The 8-16 Illini are in the midst of a five-game losing streak, including a 3-0 home loss to North Dakota State on Tuesday.

The Illini will have an opportunity to reverse that trend when they host Minnesota this weekend at Eichelberger Field to kick off their conference season.

While Illinois has struggled, No. 15 Minnesota is facing little obstacles. Since losing to No. 25 UAB, the 23-4 Golden Gophers have been on a nine-game win streak.

Reigning Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and Minnesota sophomore Sara Groenewegen was named the Big Ten Pitcher of the Week for the third time this season. Groenewegen had three complete-game wins last weekend at the Fresno State Classic. She had a 0.64 ERA, allowing just 12 hits in 22 innings with 22 strikeouts. Groenewegen leads all Big Ten pitchers with an ERA of 0.96 and 155 strikeouts this season. She is fifth among NCAA D-I pitchers with 14 victories.

The Illini faced a similar situation Tuesday against NDSU junior Krista Menke, who pitched a complete-game shutout. Menke, who leads the nation in strikeouts, only allowed the Illini six hits.

Although it will be a difficult opponent, Sullivan looks for her power hitters to keep her team competitive throughout the series. Junior Allie Bauch, sophomore Nicole Evans and freshman Carly Thomas all hit home runs for the Illini last weekend against Providence at the Stacy Winsberg Memorial Tournament. However, the Illini still struggled to knock runners in early in the game, stranding six runners in the first three innings. They left the bases loaded with no outs in the second.

In last year’s matchup, Minnesota swept the three-game series, while Illinois scored its only three runs in the first game.

Sullivan recognizes the challenge her team is facing this weekend. Regardless of the outcome, she sees opportunities for her team to gain confidence going into the Big Ten season.

“Series wins are big in conference play,” Sullivan said. “We’re focusing right now on beating teams by managing innings and breaking it down inning-by-inning and pitch-by-pitch. Every time there’s a challenge, there’s an opportunity. Series wins are the goal, but we really want to have goals of winning innings.”

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