Illinois softball hosts Big Ten tournament, begins play against No. 5 Wisconsin

By Ben Fader, Assistant Sports Editor

With the 2023 regular season complete, the Illini (28-26, 6-16) enter the Big Ten tournament as the No. 12 seed. However, every game they play will be a home game, as they are hosting the conference tournament for the first time ever. The top 11 seeds will all travel to Champaign for 11 games to decide the winner of the Big Ten.

The Illini matchup with the Wisconsin Badgers (27-19, 12-10) on Wednesday night at 7 p.m., a team they faced in the regular season. The Badgers took two of the three games in the midseason series in Madison, Wisconsin, and the Illini haven’t forgotten. Heading into the rubber match, the series was tied, and the Illini left the tying run in scoring position to end the game.

“It was a back-and-forth battle,” said junior shortstop Megan Ward. “I think taking that lesson from that game is going to make us, even more, fueled up and fired up.”

Ward has been one of the mainstays in the top of the order for the Illini and has postseason experience from a year ago. She says that the postseason is different from the rest of the year, and the Illini are locked in, ready with an approach for each game.

“Pre-season, conference season and postseason, we all group those as ones, twos and threes,” she said. “We all start 0-0 … knowing that you have to survive and advance. It’s going to take one game at a time to plan and keep our season alive.”

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    The Illini get an extra day of practice and are sleeping in their own beds this week, which Ward appreciates. After a disappointing conference season, the shortstop believes that the team has learned many lessons that they can showcase while fighting for the conference crown.

    “Even if we lost a game, as long as we’re learning something from it, then it’s still beneficial,” Ward said. “We don’t want to lose a game and keep doing the same thing over and over again, so I think we can definitely say that we took things away from our losses.”

    Learning lessons from losses gets easier when you are playing a team for the fourth time, and this time at home. The Badgers are not one of the top offenses in the conference, only combining for a .267 average and 29 home runs on the year.

    Graduate student and first baseman Katie Keller is the one-hitter to watch out for on the Badgers, hitting .387 with a 1.085 OPS. In the first matchup with the Illini, Keller was 3-8 with two RBI and four runs scored. They’ll need to keep Keller in check, because the Badger pitching rotation is lethal.

    In a do-or-die game, the Illini are sure to see one of Badger’s top two arms: junior Gabi Salo or graduate student Maddie Schwartz. The duo have an ERA of 1.81 and 1.66, respectively, and a combined WHIP of a little over 1.00. They have been nearly untouchable this season and won’t give the Illini much room for error.

    The Illini will feature an offense that has struggled lately, but there’s no better time to turn things around. Senior designated hitter Kelly Ryono has been consistent throughout the year but has struggled to get other support in the lineup at times. The senior hit .349 with a 1.037 OPS and a whopping 12 home runs. Ryono will need help if they want to string together some wins, but the offense is sure to start with her.

    If the Illini are able to pull out this first game, it will be a quick turnaround. They will be back in action on Thursday, facing the fourth-seeded Nebraska Cornhuskers (33-19, 13-10) in another night game. If they lose, it will end their season, almost certainly missing the NCAA tournament.


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