Illinois softball looking to carry Needham’s performance into upcoming tournament

By Charlotte Carroll

Illinois softball’s Brandi Needham was studying at Irwin Academic Center on Monday when her phone started buzzing. The first message came from her head coach Terri Sullivan and what followed were a slew of congratulatory texts.  

Needham closed out her last regular season weekend against Penn State by being named both the Big Ten Pitcher and Big Ten Freshman of the week for her performance.

“I was kind of surprised that I got them because I’m not a strikeout-dominated pitcher,” Needham said. “I really rely on defense. So it was shocking, but still very nice. It’s a good confidence booster, but you can’t let it get to you too much. You just have to keep going and try to prove yourself.”

She proved herself this weekend by allowing just one run, one walk and nine hits over 14 innings in her two complete game wins against the Nittany Lions. She pitched her fourth shutout of the season, but her first in a Big Ten series on Friday.

Needham became the first Illinois freshman to take home Big Ten Pitcher of the Week since it went to two Illini during the 2001 season. She is also the first Illinois pitcher to earn Big Ten Freshman of the Week since the award’s inception in 2011.

The Illini want to carry Needham’s performance and the momentum from their first conference sweep of the season into the Big Ten tournament in Evanston, Ill., this weekend.

“I think it speaks to what, for what she did for our team this past weekend,” Sullivan said. “We needed to do what we did. It gave our defense a lot of confidence. She’s just getting better and better. Obviously to her team, she really puts them first. I think she’s got a great future ahead of her. But right now, she wants to get it done this weekend.”

Earning the No. 9 seed, Illinois will face No. 8 Iowa in a first round matchup Thursday afternoon looking for the chance to play No. 1 Michigan in Friday’s quarterfinal. The Illini are searching for redemption against the Hawkeyes after losing their opening conference series to them in March.

“That seems like ages ago,” Sullivan said. “But that weekend was very disappointing for us. We had two extra-inning games with one win and one loss and I think that affected us a little bit for some time in our conference season. Now you win or you go home. And we believe we have the offense and defense clicking where it needs to be to play four games there. That’s what our goal is.”

During a disappointing conference season, Illinois has mustered only seven conference wins compared to 16 losses. But the Penn State sweep was exactly how the team wanted to close out the season and head into tournament.

“It kind of makes us forget about the season we’ve had,” said Allie Bauch, who had three home runs in the Penn State series. “I think that’s a big thing we just need to forget about that season. It’s a new tournament, everyone starts on a clean slate. We just need to take the positives from last weekend and just go with it.”

With the Penn State wins, Illinois closed out the regular season with a ninth-place finish in the Big Ten. Now, as the team heads into tournament play, the Illini are hoping for their first tournament victory since 2004.

And with Neeham’s awards, Illinois is looking to keep strong pitching and defense a priority.

“We had a little lull towards the beginning of the Big Ten season,” Needham said. “But we got it back and we’re at our peak and at our prime. We just have to carry that momentum, we know we have it. We just need to carry it over the weekend.”

Charlotte can be reached at [email protected] and @charlottecrrll.