Big Ten play begins for Illinois softball with home series against Rutgers

By Ben Fader, Assistant Sports Editor

The Rutgers Scarlet Knights (23-10) are visiting Champaign this weekend for a three-game series with the Illini (18-9), the first against a Big Ten opponent for either team. It will be a dreary opener for the schools, with forecasts showing pending thunderstorms for much of the weekend.

Both teams have enjoyed better starts than in previous years, especially the Scarlet Knights, who are just two wins away from their season total a year ago. The recent surge gives them momentum heading into the matchup to achieve something they haven’t done since 2016: Beat the Illini. 

Scheduling conflicts and COVID-19 have prevented the teams from playing on a consistent basis over the years, but the Illini have come out victorious in the last five faceoffs. Despite a lack of meetings, there will be familiarity with one another.

15 of 18 starters from last year’s matchup remain on their respective squads in 2023, as well as all six pitchers. Both teams appear much improved with an extra year under their belts, likely making for a more competitive series this go around.

Fifth-year pitcher Sydney Sickels was decisive in two of the three games last year and is poised to lead the Illini through the thick of the Big Ten schedule. The veteran has been fantastic in her final collegiate season, posting a 2.11 ERA while tallying 76 strikeouts in 69.2 innings. 

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    The rest of the rotation has been solid as well, allowing fewer than three earned runs per game combined. The staff will be tested against a Scarlet Knight offense averaging nearly six runs per game. With a contrast that large, one team will leave the weekend confident that their first-half performance has been no fluke.

    The Scarlet Knights feature another stellar rotation to toe the rubber this weekend, giving the Illini their biggest challenge since the opening tournament. The Illini offense has struggled at times but developed a magic number over the first 27 games. The Illini are an outstanding 14-0 when they cross home plate four or more times in a game this year. 

    It may not be a large number, but with the pitching staff as dominant as it has been, four runs are all they have needed. Time will tell if that total holds true through conference play, but for now, the Illini have waited over ten months to improve on last year’s Big Ten finish, and they finally get the chance Friday. 

     

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