Illini softball earns first winning weekend in ACC/Big Ten Challenge

By Ben Fader, Staff Writer

We are officially nine games into the season as Illinois softball (5-4) narrowly escaped the second weekend with a winning record. The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (4-5) hosted the Louisville Cardinals (6-2), Wisconsin Badgers (2-6) and the Illini for the ACC/B1G Challenge in Atlanta, where the Illini left as the winningest team of the weekend.

The Illini only faced off against their ACC counterparts, taking both games from the Cardinals and splitting with the Yellow Jackets. The pitching staff continued their excellence against non-ranked foes, and the offense stepped up in big moments for the Illini wins.

Action kicked off Friday afternoon against a Cardinal squad that received a vote to be ranked in the week one NCAA NFCA coaches poll. Sophomore left fielder Stevie Meade put the Illini up in the second inning, crushing a ball over the right field fence for a solo home run. They never looked back, winning 6-1

Junior pitcher Tori McQueen looked like she was in midseason form posting one earned run and six hits in a complete-game performance. McQueen struck out four batters and filled up the strike zone, allowing the flawless defense behind her to make plays. It marked the first win of the new season for McQueen and set the Illini up for the weekend.

“I established that nothing will be dropping in the outfield for our pitchers,” Meade said, “Because if a pitcher is able to put a ball in play then it is our job behind her as a defense to make every play possible.”

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    In game two, fifth-year Sydney Sickels decided to pitch even better, leading the Illini to another win. A much closer affair in the first of two on Saturday, Sickels was clutch all afternoon, allowing only one earned run on three hits. Sickels pitched into extra innings for the second time in two weekends, showing off her stamina deep into ball games.

    Every one of her 113 pitches mattered on Saturday because the Illini offense was quiet as well. They managed just six hits in eight innings, but none were more important than Meade’s game-winner. A single up the middle scored the game-winning run in the bottom of the eighth to sweep the Cardinals.

    “I wanted to be in that position,” Meade said. “I wanted to be the player to step up in that box and get it done. I had teammates behind me saying ‘you can do it, this is what you’re made for,’ so I just went up there and had some fun and confidence.”

    The Illini resumed action later Saturday night, but the offense was left behind once again. Two runs weren’t enough in their first game against the Yellow Jackets, as the opposing offense exploded early for a 5-0 lead. The Yellow Jacket pitching staff combined to allow zero earned runs, making way for another competitive game on Sunday.

    Senior right fielder Kelly Ryono responded to the poor offensive day Saturday with a leadoff home run, giving the Illini an early lead. McQueen was not quite as effective as Friday, but still only surrendered three runs in four two-thirds innings. Sickels came in relief to shut the door on any more scoring from the Yellow Jackets.

    The Illini trailed 3-1 heading into the fifth, where the bottom of the lineup started a rally. Junior shortstop Megan Ward’s second hit of the day was a double in the gap to drive in one, and she quickly scored to tie the game on a fielder’s choice from Ryono. Senior third baseman Delaney Rummell put the Illini ahead for good two batters later with a double of her own.

    “I think we keep building,” Meade said. “Keep working that trust and trusting the process, and we go week by week touching up on things we need to work on and getting better on things that we are succeeding at individually.”

    A winning weekend has the Illini trending in the right direction, as they continue their tour of the south with pre-conference tournaments before they head back to Champaign for their home opener on March 15.

     

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