Illinois needs aggressive hitting in Florida

Junior+Avrey+Steiner+hits+the+ball+during+the+Orange+%26+Blue+World+Series+on+Oct.+25.+The+Illini+will+begin+their+2021+season+playing+against+multiple+opponents+in+Florida+this+weekend.

Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Junior Avrey Steiner hits the ball during the Orange & Blue World Series on Oct. 25. The Illini will begin their 2021 season playing against multiple opponents in Florida this weekend.

By Carson Gourdie, Assistant Sports Editor

With chilly weather and the Big Ten’s concerns over the coronavirus, the Illinois softball team is kicking off the 2021 season with a road trip in Leesburg, Florida, bubbled off from the public. 

The Illini finished 11-11 last season, though they didn’t play a single game against any Big Ten foes. Illinois was incredibly young last season, and it was given a huge boost by the performance of Youngstown State transfer and pitcher Addy Jarvis. 

While every Big Ten team is down in the Sunshine State with head coach Tyra Perry’s club, Illinois will not face every team, with the first six games this week coming against Rutgers, Maryland and Michigan, respectively. 

While other programs across the nation have already begun play, the Illini have anxiously waited for the opportunity to return to the diamond. But despite the feelings, Perry noticed her team acted mature during the process. 

“When we came back in January, it was a dream,” Perry said. “Everyone was super focused, just a lot of fun. You could just tell everyone had perspective of what we missed last season.”

While pitching carried the team last season, the act of Jarvis and Sidney Sickels is unsustainable. After opening the season 4-0 in 2020, the Illini went on a losing streak once the pitching dropped a little in production. 

Last season, the Illini batted only .226 as a team, despite having some notable performers. Junior Avrey Steiner was incredibly consistent last season and finished with a batting average of .338. Including four successful stolen bases, Steiner was a tough out for opponents. 

The Illini, while not having great amounts of power, will utilize softball IQ to keep pitching staffs off-balance.  

“We’re really evolving every day as far as our offensive strategy and approach,” Perry said. “We empathize execution, making sure you’re a tough out, you’re aggressive, you’re putting bunts down.”

While no conference games were played in 2020, each Big Ten team has a non-conference track record from last season, even if it was shortened. As for the first three opponents for the Illini, they should expect to face a team from each tier. 

Rutgers stumbled out of the gate last season, finishing with an overall record of 10-14. Though they had some nice moments — including an early two-game sweep of Syracuse — a lack of pitching consistently took Rutgers out of games. 

With a team ERA of over 5.00, the Scarlet Knights could only rely so much on pitcher Ashley Hitchcock, who finished with a team-best ERA of 3.52. As for the hitting, it wasn’t much better, with a team batting average just over .245.

Maryland had similar issues, though they flirted closer to .500 in the non-conference portion of the season. 

Maryland didn’t produce a lot of power last season, finishing with only two home runs. Still, Maryland managed to get on base often, with a team batting average of .272. 

The pitching, however, held back Maryland a lot. Pitchers allowed 21 home runs in 23 games, with the ERA skyrocketing to over five runs a game. 

The Illini wrap up against the Michigan Wolverines, the best team Illinois faces this week. The Ann Arbor school finished the season ranked in the top 25 after peaking at sixth in the rankings. 

The Wolverines had decent hitting, but the pitching staff was what helped Michigan thrive in non-conference play last season. Led by Meghan Beaubien, who finished the season with a 1.52 ERA and six complete games, the Wolverines held teams to a .182 batting average, allowing for the offense to take nights off.  Against the Wolverines, the Illini will need to play small ball and take advantage of little mistakes against a stout pitching staff.

“We’re going to be everything but the kitchen sink,” Perry said.

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