Friday games incite energy for Illini

By Rachel Spencer, Staff writer

In what was supposed to be a five-game tournament this weekend, the Illinois softball team only played three games (its Sunday matchup against McNeese and Saturday game against Syracuse were canceled due to less-than-ideal weather).

Despite the shortened schedule, the Illini left the OSU-Tulsa Invitational with a tournament record of 2-1. The results moved Illinois to an overall record of 12-4.

Friday at noon, Illinois was greeted with familiarly chilly weather, as the temperature at the start of its game against Northern Iowa was only a brisk 33 degrees.

Northern Iowa went up to bat in the top of the first and picked up two runs against senior pitcher Emily Oestreich. When the Panthers were retired, the Illini answered the two runs from an RBI single off the bat by senior third baseman Annie Fleming and an RBI double from sophomore catcher Bella Loya.

Illinois’ inning also included a historic moment for the program as senior more left-field Carly Thomas tied the program’s career doubles record at 52 — Thomas would later break the record with 53 career doubles.

“It’s so exciting. Carly is an awesome girl; she’s such a hard worker. She deserves to be recognized and get those accolades,” Oestreich said. “We’re all so proud of her, and it couldn’t go to a better person. She works so hard and deserves it; it’s amazing.”

It would be a continual uphill battle Friday afternoon for Illinois, as Northern Iowa eventually broke the tie game and extended its lead 8-6 by the sixth frame. A two-run homer from sophomore first baseman Maddison Demers in the bottom of the seventh tied the game, continuing the matchup into extra innings.

The Panthers took an early lead in the eighth, but the Illini would not only answer their run to tie it up 9-9, but also make the comeback off an RBI single from Fleming for a 10-9 victory.

A Friday evening matchup against Tulsa came with a much slower start for Illinois, with neither team scoring until the third frame. The Illini were up 2-0 until the bottom of the fourth, when the Hurricanes scored on a wild pitch from freshman Sydney Sickels. A Hurricane error in the top of the fifth allowed freshman Avrey Steiner to score, stretching the lead 3-1.

Bella Loya would gain an RBI single in the sixth frame to add to Illinois’ lead, but it was a two-run dinger from senior right fielder Veronica Ruelius that gave Illinois the insurance it needed. Tulsa would come close during the seventh, but Illinois walked away holding its second victory of the day with a final score of 6-4.

So far this season, Illinois has won every one of its Friday games.

“I think we come out with a lot of energy on Fridays. We’re ready to play, we’re excited to play, we just bring a lot of energy and intensity to those Friday games,” Oestreich said. “We do to all our other games, but I think especially on Fridays we come out with, like, a fire, and we’re excited to finally get to play from not being able to play during the week.”

Illinois’ final showdown against Seattle started off with a scoreless first frame, with Seattle surging ahead in the second with four runs. Carly Thomas reached on an error in the third to start chipping away at the Redhawks’ lead.

A pinch-hit RBI courtesy of freshman Kailee Powell brought the Illini within two in the fourth, but a bases-loaded walk in the fifth allowed the Redhawks to extend their lead to 5-2. The two runs would be Illinois’ only runs against Seattle, losing their only game of the tournament.

Next up, the Illini head out to the west coast to compete in Los Angeles, California March 15-17 and will finally return home to Eichelberger Field in Urbana March 19.

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