Illinois softball set to finish regular season at Nebraska

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Illinois’ Jess Perkins reaches out to catch the pitch during the softball game vs. Wisconsin at Eichelberger Field on April 17. 

By Ethan Swanson

For 64 softball teams across the country, the postseason begins May 15 with the regional round of the 2015 Women’s College World Series.

For the Illini softball team, though, the postseason begins this weekend.

The Illini (25-24, 13-7 Big Ten) begin a three-game conference series against Nebraska (30-19, 15-5) on Friday. With the teams fourth and third in the conference standings, respectively, a series sweep would give Illinois sole possession of third place heading into the first round of the Big Ten tournament May 7. It would allow the Illini to potentially delay a meeting with No. 5 Michigan until the championship series of the conference tournament.

“Our main goal right now is to win the series against Nebraska in hopes of actually making the postseason,” said senior catcher Jess Perkins. “We need to stay over .500 (for an at-large bid) too, so we’re just concerned about coming out with some wins.”

A win is something the Cornhuskers have rarely surrendered to the Illini in recent years.

Illinois is 2-8 against Nebraska all-time; the most recent meeting resulted in a 12-3 rout by Nebraska at Eichelberger Field last April.

Despite the unfavorable series history for Illinois, the two teams seem to match up eerily well this season.

Although Nebraska’s non-conference and tournament schedule was substantially weaker than Illinois’ this season, the results against common opponents are almost identical.

Both schools dropped a game against Purdue and Northwestern, and both scored at least 12 runs in their two wins over Iowa during conference play. Outside the Big Ten, Illinois and Nebraska each made quick work of DePaul on the road and were on the losing end of a 3-0 contest with North Dakota State at home. Neither team has played Michigan during the regular season, nor have the schools dropped a Big Ten series with any team other than No. 19 Minnesota.

“Every year (Nebraska) is a very tough opponent, but we’re excited to go their field, take over, and play the game our way,” said senior outfielder Brittany Sanchez, “It will be a good match up offensively, and pitching-wise.”

With Northwestern tied with Illinois in the conference loss column, the Illini cannot afford to sink to fifth place and lose a first-round bye in the conference tournament.

The Illini players say getting the bye would be huge for a team with a young roster whose ace has already pitched over 150 innings this season.

“It would be really nice to have our pitchers rest their arms, catchers rest their legs and be able to throw in an extra practice somewhere,” said sophomore outfielder Nicole Evans.

Head coach Terri Sullivan and her team don’t like to look at implications too far ahead in the future, but they realize if they don’t show up ready to play in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Friday, there might not be a future for the team past May.

With standings, seeding and postseason hopes on the line, Sullivan believes her team is ready for the pressure.

“All Big Ten games have a special feel to them,” Sullivan said. “We expect a big fight from everyone, but this team just loves to play the game. We let (media) worry about the standings and scenarios, we’ve just done a very good job focusing on playing quality Illinois softball.”

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