Illinois softball faces Northwestern in mid-week doubleheader

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Illinois’ Carly Thomas swings for the ball during the team’s 5-3 win against Wisconsin at Eichelberger Field on Saturday.

By Ethan Swanson

The Illinois softball team won its fourth straight Big Ten conference series Saturday after sweeping a grueling doubleheader against Wisconsin that lasted nearly six hours.

The Illini are now in fourth place in the Big Ten with a 10-5 conference record, 21-22 overall. If the Illini want to see their record rise above .500 for the first time this season, they’ll have to sweep another doubleheader — this time on the road against in-state rival Northwestern.

“We had no other choice but to win games for a while because of the way we started,” head coach Terri Sullivan said. “But obviously, if you can pick a time to play at your best, you want to play well during conference.”

Northwestern (21-17, 9-5 Big Ten) is the first top-five Big Ten adversary Illinois will have faced since getting swept at home by No. 15 Minnesota March 20-22, a series in which the Illini averaged under two runs. Head-to-head, the Wildcats lead the all-time series 21-11, defeating the Illini each of the last eight meetings.

In its last outing, Northwestern snapped a six-game skid Sunday at Nebraska, putting together a 5-3 seventh-inning comeback win sealed by a diving catch at shortstop that earned the No. 2 spot on ESPN’s SportsCenter Top-10 plays. With both teams coming off dramatic wins, Sullivan believes Wednesday’s matchup will come down to the mental game.

“Physically, these girls are well-trained; we played five games a weekend in February and March,” Sullivan said. “Two games in a day isn’t much for us, but it’s the mental part: staying alert and ready to go, that’s what you prepare for in these mid-week doubleheaders.”

No matter what mentality Illinois has entering Wednesday, it can’t change its lack of depth at the pitching position — a crucial element to playing multiple games in such a short time frame. In Saturday’s doubleheader with the Badgers, sophomore pitcher Jade Vecvanags pitched a complete first game and came on in relief the second game after just 2 1/3 combined innings pitched by Shelese Arnold and Breanna Wonderly.

Vecvanags (15-9) is clearly the Illini’s ace, already gathering 10 wins in conference. She already has over 121 innings pitched on the season: 46 more innings than any other Illinois pitcher. With the work load Vecvanags has shouldered thus far, Sullivan says managing her innings Wednesday will be a major factor.

“We just need to see how the games go,” Sullivan said. “All our pitchers will be ready to go, but Jade’s our leader in the circle. When you have the hot hand, you get the ball.”

“As a defense, we need to make mandatory plays behind whoever pitches,” said freshman outfielder Carly Thomas. “It’s our job to have her back.”

A sweep of Northwestern would put Illinois tied for third in the conference with Nebraska, which would pay dividends for Illinois in May at the conference tournament. Despite climbing up the Big Ten standings and clawing back to a game within .500, the players still feel they have something to prove against the Wildcats.

“When it comes to our RPI, we have to prove ourselves,” Thomas said. “If people think you’re the underdog, you just want to prove them wrong.”

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