Illinois softball ends regular season fifth in the Big Ten

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Illinois’ Breanna Wonderly pitches the ball during the softball game vs. Purdue at Eichelberger Field on April 26.

By Cole Henke

The Illinois softball team wrapped up its regular season in Lincoln, Nebraska, with a loss to the Cornhuskers in a game that ended after five innings.

After losing its first series since March 22, Illinois (26-26, 14-9 Big Ten) finished in fifth place in the Big Ten. The team was in fourth behind Nebraska (32-20, 17-6 Big Ten) entering the weekend.

After splitting the first two games of the series, head coach Terri Sullivan’s team dug itself too deep in a hole early in Sunday’s rubber match.

Illinois’ offense struggled, scoring only one run on three hits. It was the first time that the team only scored one run since an 11-1 loss to Minnesota on March 21.

A 30-minute weather delay was issued in the third inning due to lighting. Sullivan said the halt seemed like it could of been a potential reset button for her struggling team.

“We were in a position to make a run after the rain delay,” Sullivan said. “But didn’t push a few more runs across soon enough.”

A potential two-out rally for Illinois was cut off in the third inning when freshman Carly Thomas flew out to left field with runners on second and third. The Cornhuskers were up 8-1 by the end of the inning.

Starting pitcher Shelese Arnold had a rough start to the game. The senior only pitched 1 1/3 inning and gave up seven runs on three hits and six walks. Walking too many batsmen allowed Nebraska to build on its big lead.

Sullivan said the team was solid defensively and credited sophomore Breanna Wonderly for pitching well when she came in to relieve Arnold. Wonderly gave up one run in 3 1/3 innings. It was her second effective relief appearance in a row, giving the Illini a strong option out off the bullpen.

The Illini will head into the Big Ten tournament as the fifth seed. The team would have received a first-round bye with a victory in the rubber match. Instead Illinois will face No. 12 seed Purdue on Thursday in the tournament’s opening game.

If the Illini beat the Boilermakers, they would face No. 4 seed Northwestern on Friday and if they knock off the Wildcats, a semifinal matchup with No. 1 seed Michigan would loom Saturday. Ohio State is hosting the Big Ten Tournament.

Finishing the season at .500 did not look likely for the Illini after an 8-16 start. One of the team’s new goals is to reach the NCAA Tournament.

“Getting back to .500 is a huge accomplishment for this team,” said junior Allie Bauch. “We said we wanted to turn our season around, and we definitely did.”

Their fifth-place finish in the Big Ten is the best finish for the Illini since 2011, and their .500 winning percentage is the best highest since 2010.

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