Third tournament in three weeks provides more opportunities for Illinois softball

Senior+Gabi+Robles%2C++redshirt+freshman+Jazzy+Avila+and+sophomore+Zoie+Howard+cheer+from+the+dugout+during+a+fall+ball+game+against+Lakeland.+This+weekend%2C+Illinois+will+head+down+south+to+compete+in+the+Houston+tournament+with+their+first+game+on+Friday+at+3+p.m.

Logan Hodson

Senior Gabi Robles, redshirt freshman Jazzy Avila and sophomore Zoie Howard cheer from the dugout during a fall ball game against Lakeland. This weekend, Illinois will head down south to compete in the Houston tournament with their first game on Friday at 3 p.m.

By Ben Fader, Staff Writer

The Illini softball team is back in action this weekend, Feb. 24–26, for the Houston tournament, their third out-of-state tournament in three weeks. Joining the Illini in the Lone Star State are the Sam Houston Bearkats (5-6), Houston Christian Huskies (8-3), Pittsburgh Panthers (6-3) and the hosts, the Houston Cougars (6-4).

The first of back-to-back doubleheaders begin with the Illini facing the Bearkats at 3 p.m. on Friday. The Bearkats have been inconsistent to start the new year and find themselves 0-2 against Power Five opponents thus far. One of the very few bright spots for the Western Athletic Conference program in 2023 has been junior centerfielder Ellie Grill. Grill has provided stability at the top of the order with a .429 average and a .500 on-base percentage. If she can be contained, the Illini are more than likely to find success.

Game two of the doubleheader will be the first matchup against the Cougars, who have also struggled against Power Five teams this year. Four of their six losses came to these foes, continuing a trend from a year ago for the Cougars. Pitching and offense have each been mediocre through 11 games, with the rotation posting a 3.10 ERA. The Illini will benefit from putting the ball in play against the Cougars, who have given up 10 unearned runs.

The Cougars have also struggled with offense, but not in all phases. The team has no trouble getting on base, with a .307 average. However, the Cougars have struggled to capitalize with runners on, averaging a meager four runs per game and only four home runs total in the power department. It should make for an eventful pair of games on Friday and Saturday to see if the Illini staff can keep the hosts off the base paths.

Day two starts with the Huskies, who own the best record of any team in the tournament. After posting their first losing record since 2018 last season, the local program has rebounded behind a potent offense. Getting on base nearly 40% of the time has led to a complete turnaround for the Huskies and will be key to stop for the Illini.

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While the pitching staff has impressed up to this point, the numbers are slightly deceiving because of their opponents. The Houston tournament will provide the most competitive weekend of three for the Huskies, and the Illini will see what they are really made of offensively on Saturday afternoon.

After another matchup with the Cougars on Saturday, the Illini conclude the weekend stay in Houston with their third ACC opponent of the season. The Panthers already have a ranked win under their belts in the new year, proving they can hang with the best. A high-powered offense has masked a horrible pitching staff and defense, keeping the Panthers afloat early on.

The Panthers allow over seven runs per game, by far the highest of anyone in the tournament. Nevertheless, the disaster on defense has been overcome by scoring nearly nine runs per game, also the highest in the tournament. Something has got to give for the Panthers, as they are surrounded by teams, including the Illini, with above-average pitching this weekend.

The Illini look to build off a winning weekend and bolster an early tournament resume with more wins against power opponents.

 

@benfader7

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