Illinois returns to Urbana, looks to extend winning streak against Minnesota

By Allende Miglietta, Staff Writer

Illinois hasn’t played a home game since the end of the 2019 season. This weekend, the Illini will face the Minnesota Golden Gophers in a four-game series, including a doubleheader on Saturday at Eichelberger Field.

They started their All-Big Ten season with 12 games at Sleepy Hollow Sports Complex in Leesburg, Florida. Illinois’ toughness and determination has generated their starting record of 10-2, including a dominant series sweep over Penn State, while the team is on a three-game winning streak. The Illini were able to soak up some vitamin D in the Sunshine State and are ready to radiate their talent on their home field.

“We try to be really tough on both ends of the ball, whether that’s a gritty at-bat or throwing a quality pitch when the game is on the line,” said assistant coach Lance McMahon. “We don’t ever want to give the opponent anything, especially in the Big Ten being such a competitive conference. Whenever we win games, we want to make sure that we won the game, not the other team just giving it to us. Lately, again, we’ve just been talking about imposing our will, and whenever another team plays Illinois, they know about it. It’s not like some fluke that Illinois won the game.”

The Illini have developed a reputation on the field. They strive for competitive excellence, as the coaching staff wants its players to rise up to the challenge, no matter how tough it is. The key is to prevail and impose their will.

Like many people during these treacherous COVID-19 times, the team has had to overcome some challenges to get to the point they are at today. These last couple of months have taken a mental, physical and emotional toll on Illinois softball. However, being the durable team that they are, overcoming these challenges was the only option toward success.

“We’re constantly looking for team bonding activities that can bring us closer together,” McMahon said. “So, we’ve had to restructure that: being together but being apart at the same time. It’s been really tough this year compared to any other year that I’ve coached. I really feel like our girls have taken the bull by the horns and have truly invested in each other and this program.”

During the season, the Illinois softball program is the players’ second home: their family, their unity. It is important to build up the people close to you, especially from a mental standpoint. When there is no alternative but to grind, one’s headspace and mentality have to be sharp and strong, and this is exactly what Illinois promotes. With guidance, mental training and eliteness, the Illini coaching staff enforces mental vigor and soundness.

To attain that tunnel vision and focus, prioritizing mentality is vital to keeping their eyes on the prize. McMahon shared a moment of team bonding, where they encouraged the team to strive toward this competitive excellence by watching “The Last Dance.”

“We’re trying to find ways to tap into what makes a lead athlete elite and what they do with their mind,” McMahon said. “In the Big Ten Conference, everybody is going to be talented. Everybody is going to be good. How do we get that extra little edge, and what are the professional teams doing that are setting themselves apart?”

As the team advances, they focus on the short term, playing in the moment to get the next out, pitch and hit. Their team captains — Avrey Steiner and Bella Loya — have been great leaders both on and off the field. They, along with the rest of the team, have continued to compel each other to strive toward that next victory. Their tunnel vision and toughness are the product of their competitive excellence.

Minnesota is the team’s next opponent, and similar to Illinois, the Golden Gophers have a prominent record of 9-3. The Illini are up for the challenge and ready to take on this solid team. They are set to continue to be competitive with each pitch, find ways to win each at-bat and triumph with each fielding play. With a fielding percentage of .833, Illinois is prepared to dominate not only physically, but mentally as well.

“I think the biggest thing we’re preaching right now is that whenever we play a Minnesota or Michigan type of team, you can’t give anything away,” Lance said. “Again, you actually have to go win the game. They’re not going to give you any, so don’t look for them because it’s not going to happen.

“Our mentality going into Minnesota is let’s go take these games from them, have that mindset that we’re just as good as them and everything else will fall into place. Minnesota is good, and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”



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