The Illinois softball team looks to capitalize on best finish since 2011

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Illinois’ Jess Perkins reaches out to catch the pitch during the softball game vs. Wisconsin at Eichelberger Field on April 17.

A fifth-place regular-season finish in conference won’t earn a first-round bye in this year’s Big Ten Softball Tournament in Columbus, Ohio.

For Illinois (26-26, 14-9), it is a performance that ends four years of conference mediocrity.

Entering the last weekend of conference play — two games behind Nebraska and a half-game ahead of Northwestern — the Illini had an opportunity to secure third place with a sweep of the Huskers on the road. Although Illinois ultimately concluded the regular season a half-game out of fourth place and a tournament bye after dropping two games to Nebraska, 2015 marks the Illini’s best Big Ten finish since 2010.

“We’ve had a lot of players come a long way, both statistically and mentally,”said head coach Terri Sullivan. “They’re finally starting to realize what it takes to play in this conference.”

Illinois’ 14-9 Big Ten record doubles the amount of last season’s conference wins.

The No. 5 seed in the Big Ten tournament is Illinois’ highest seeding since 2004, when the team captured the No. 2 seed and lost to Michigan State 7-5 in the conference championship game.

Illinois has finished in the top-five three other times since 2004 — 2009, 2010, and 2011 — but no tournament was played during those years.

Senior success

Illinois has received major contributions from its underclassmen all season, but few players have been as consistent and integral to this year’s success as seniors Brittany Sanchez and Jess Perkins.

At catcher, Perkins has been key in the development of the Illini’s ace Jade Vecvanags; with Perkins calling the pitches, Vecvanags has recorded a conference-leading 19 wins.

At the plate, Perkins has swung a hot bat all year: she’s batting .339 with a team-leading 48 RBIs.

Playing all 52 games in right field, Sanchez has only committed two errors and leads an Illini outfield that includes two underclassmen. At the eight-spot in the lineup, Sanchez has five doubles, 34 hits and 15 RBIs.

“We (the seniors) have been preparing the younger players since day one,” Sanchez said. “And I like the direction we’re going toward.”

Road woes

Eichelberger Field has been a haven for the Illini this season — they’ve won 10 of 16 outings at home this season.

Outside of Urbana is a different story. Illinois is 10-11 in away games and 6-9 at neutral site. This season’s record-breaking offense has struggled to find its groove on the road, averaging under five runs in Illinois’ last five away games compared to an average of nine runs in the team’s last five games at home.

“We definitely lost some games we should have one earlier in the season,” said outfielder Nicole Evans. “We know we can’t get games back, we just have to start playing Illinois softball wherever we go.”

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@EthanSwanson88