Illinois softball prepares to open 2023 season in Florida with NFCA Leadoff Classic

Fifth-year+Kailee+Powell+goes+for+a+ground+ball+at+first+base+during+a+game+against+Penn+State+on+May+5%2C+2022.+Beginning+Friday%2C+the+Illini+will+participate+in+the+NFCA+Leadoff+Classic+in+Clearwater%2C+Fla.+

Sidney Malone

Fifth-year Kailee Powell goes for a ground ball at first base during a game against Penn State on May 5, 2022. Beginning Friday, the Illini will participate in the NFCA Leadoff Classic in Clearwater, Fla.

By Ben Fader, Staff Writer

Opening day has arrived for the 2023 NCAA softball season, but the Illini will be far away from chilly Champaign. The NFCA Leadoff Classic is hosting a five-game tournament from Feb. 10–12 in Clearwater, Florida, where the Illini will face the Southern Lady Jaguars, No. 13 Tennessee Lady Volunteers, Fordham Rams, No. 6 Texas Longhorns and the No. 21 Auburn Tigers.

A Friday doubleheader kicks off against the Lady Jaguars, who finished 18 games under .500 in 2022, the only Illini opponent this weekend with a losing record last year. Similar to the Illini, the Lady Jaguars are returning many of their starters, earning them a third-place prediction in the preseason poll for their conference. Despite being so poor a year ago, the coaching matchup brings intrigue to the game. Head coach Tyra Perry will stand opposite her younger sister, Brittney Williams, who is entering her second season at the historically Black college.

Immediately following the conclusion of game one, the Lady Volunteers will take over the opposing dugout, and game two will commence. The women from Tennessee sported a 41-18 record on their way to hosting a regional in the NCAA tournament last season and are loaded with talent once again. Three players represent the Lady Volunteers on the preseason All-SEC team: junior third basemen Zaida Puni, senior centerfielder Kiki Milloy and graduate pitcher Ashley Rogers. There is plenty of firepower to back up the three stars, and they will provide a strong early test for the Illini.

Saturday has another doubleheader in store for the Illini, and a more competitive one at that. The Rams enter unranked but won the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament in 2022. For a team that struggled when they reached the NCAA tournament, like the Illini, games like this are important tests to see where the Illini stand coming into the year.

Game two will feature the highest-ranked team on the Illini’s schedule for the rest of the year: the Texas Longhorns. Often overshadowed by the No. 1 powerhouse Oklahoma Sooners in the Big 12, the Longhorns are not to be messed with. Sophomore third basemen Mia Scott earned her way to the preseason All-Big 12 team surrounded by Sooners after hitting .377 her freshman year. After getting obliterated in the World Series eight months ago, the Longhorns start their revenge tour this weekend.

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    The Illini will play the Tigers in their final game on Sunday morning. Picked to finish ninth in the SEC is deceiving for a program that won 40 games last year and returns a solid core that made the preseason rankings. The Illini will have to be careful with sophomore first basemen Bri Ellis and junior pitcher Maddie Penta, who both made the preseason All-SEC team.

    The Illini are only scheduled to play four teams in 2023 who made the preseason rankings, making opening weekend unfairly important. They will not get many other chances for strong resume-boosting wins throughout the year. Leaving Florida with at least one win over a ranked opponent is crucial for a team looking to improve their NCAA tournament seeding and performance from a year ago.

     

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