Illinois softball’s youth leads to wins and records

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Illinois’ Annie Flmeing lines up for the hit during the softball game v. Indiana State at Eichelberger Field on Wednesday, April 8. Illinois won 5-3.

By Ethan Swanson

After beginning the season 9-20, the Illinois softball team now sits at 18-21 entering a midweek matchup with the DePaul Blue Demons (15-18) and a weekend series at Eichelberger Field against a Wisconsin team that is second-to-last in the Big Ten.

The most significant aspect of this midseason surge is the team’s slew of freshman stepping up at critical moments.

“At this point in the season, we don’t call anyone a freshman,” head coach Terri Sullivan said. “They’re first-year players, but they have the same expectations as anyone else to be able to make a play when we need it.”

Freshman Annie Fleming and Carly Thomas have been a powerful offensive duo since the start of league play.

The pair have combined for 12 home runs, 37 RBIs and 31 runs scored. Thomas ranks third on the team in hits and RBIs while, second in home runs and has not committed an error in center field.

Illini freshman have made an impact off the bench as well. In last Saturday’s matchup with Maryland, Leigh Farina came in for the injured Ruby Rivera at shortstop and ended the game 2-for-4 with two runs scored and the game-tying RBI in the sixth inning.

“There’s a lot of us (freshman),” Fleming said. “So we bonded together right away. Everybody has found their niche in the group and we all feed off each other knowing everyone has our back.”

League Leaders

The Illini’s high-octane offense is rewriting the Illinois record books largely in part of conference-leading performances by two outfielders.

In last weekend’s series with Maryland, sophomore outfielder Nicole Evans smacked three home runs off the Terrapin pitching staff, giving her 16 on the season, tops in the Big Ten .

“I honestly had no clue I was even close to leading the Big Ten before the series,” Evans said after Sunday’s win. “It’s a cool stat to have, but the best thing about hitting those home runs was helping us complete the series sweep.”

In Sunday’s game of the series, Thomas’ first-inning RBI double gave her eight total on the year, six of which have come off Big Ten opponents. As Thomas reached second base Sunday she etched her name into the Illinois record books and became the conference leader for the most doubles hit in conference play.

“To have underclassmen that contribute like they do is a blessing,” Sullivan said.

Comeback kids

The Illini have certainly scored runs at a blistering pace this season, averaging nearly 10 runs a game in their last 11 outings. However, those runs typically don’t come until after the Illini have dug themselves a substantial hole early in games.

In Illinois’ last 10 wins, five times the Illini did not take a permanent lead in the game until the fifth inning or later, and three times they were tied or trailing an opponent entering the seventh inning.

When it does come down to the wire, Illinois seems to win in dramatic fashion. When tied at four with Illinois State entering the final inning on March 31, the Illini shut the door on the Redbirds with a Ruby Rivera walk-off home run. On April 4 at Iowa, Illinois turned a 7-7 tie into a 15-7 blowout with an eight-run top of the seventh inning .

“We had seen much larger deficits early in the season during tournament play,” Thomas said. “We’ve just gotten used to being down and having to come back. Knowing what kind of offense we have, we never panic.”

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