Illinois softball underclassmen carry team to series victory against Iowa

By Cole Henke

The long ball carried the Illinois softball team to another series win this weekend against Iowa in Iowa City.

The Illini (14-21, 5-4) hit six home runs and scored a total of 34 runs in three games against the Hawkeyes (12-30, 3-8). The six home runs accounted for 10 of the Illini’s RBIs.

After losing the first game, the Illini bounced back with two victories to close out the series.

This was the second Big Ten series win in a row for Illinois, who has won six of its last seven games. Head coach Terri Sullivan was pleased with her team’s performance in its first road series of the season.

“It is very hard to pick up a series win against anybody in the Big Ten,” Sullivan said. “Road series wins are even tougher to come by, and you need everybody to contribute in order to win one … This was a really big win for us.”

Most of the Illini’s success against conference opponents is due to the offensive output of the underclassmen. Freshmen Carly Thomas and Annie Fleming, and sophomore Nicole Evans combined for all six of the team’s home runs this weekend. Evans has been Illinois’s top power hitter all season. She leads the team in both home runs (13) and RBIs (34). She hit two out of the park this weekend — one in the first game and one in the third — and recorded five RBIs.

Thomas picked up where she left off in last weekend’s series against Indiana. She hit a grand slam on Sunday, which supplied all four of her RBIs for the weekend.

But the surprise contributor for the Illini this weekend was Fleming. She entered the weekend with only one home run and three RBIs on the season. Fleming hit three home runs on the weekend, and recorded seven RBIs. Two of her home runs came late in the game Sunday, effectively putting the game out of reach for the Hawkeyes.

Sullivan said the contributions from the underclassmen in the second part of the season have been the cause of the Illini’s turnaround, who were 8-16 before conference play started.

Fleming understood how big this series was for her team.

“This series means a lot to our team,” Fleming said. “It was our first road series, and we wanted to prove something to everybody, including ourselves.”

Underclassmen weren’t only producing at the plate for the Illini against the Hawkeyes. After a rough start to the game on Friday, sophomore pitcher Jade Vecvanags took over and picked up two wins on Saturday and Sunday.

Vecvanags gave up eight earned runs in the first inning without recording an out in the first game. After Sullivan pulled her out of the game, sophomore Breanna Wonderly took over, giving up seven more earned runs.

Vecvanags returned on Saturday and started game two in top form. She pitched a complete game, and even though the Hawkeyes scored seven runs, none were earned.

After a shaky start from senior Shelese Arnold, Vecvanags took over in the second inning of game three. She pitched six innings and gave up five earned runs.

“Jade was dominant,” Fleming said. “When she pitches well, we get more focused, and we want to score more runs so she can feel more comfortable in the circle. We were able to do that for her this weekend.”

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