Illinois softball looks to rebound after rough opening weekend

By Gavin Good, Assistant sports editor

The Illinois softball team did not start the new season on a high note.

The Illini went 1-4 in their opening weekend at the Friends of Jaclyn Invitational, breezing by Providence 9-1 in five innings, but dropping their next four games.

Head coach Tyra Perry identified the team’s 13 errors over five games as a major cause of the negative results.

“We made a lot of errors for sure. As good as (Emily) Oestreich and (Danielle) Brochu did for us, collectively there were a lot of walks from our pitchers,” Perry said. “We also had a lot of strikeouts, too many freebies, free passes. When we got free passes from other teams we didn’t exactly capitalize on those the way we could have.”

Illinois has 19 players returning from last season’s NCAA Regional team, but according to Perry, her squad is younger and less experienced than the team last year, which managed a 30-win season for the second consecutive year.

Nerves were an issue for the Illini, and the losses came in some high-pressure situations. Illinois dropped the second game — against North Florida — on Friday 5-3. On Saturday, the team narrowly lost to hosts Central Florida, and on Sunday, a late comeback against Louisville was not good enough to secure a win, as the Illini lost 9-7.

“People were just nervous being out there, because again, most of them didn’t play last year,” Perry said. “I think the only returning infielders we had that had experience were Stephanie Abello behind the plate and Leigh Farina, who was at second last year, and we now have her at shortstop. So all the rest of them were either role players, or didn’t play much at all or are newcomers.”

Newcomers and role players from last season, like Emily Oestreich who transferred from Lake Land Community College, are seeing significant time on the field and especially on the pitching mound. Junior Danielle Brochu, who transferred from Arkansas ahead of last season, only made six appearances in 2017, but she is expected to play a much bigger role this season. Another pitcher, sophomore Akilah Mouzon, is expected to be a bigger part of the rotation after making eight appearances during her freshman season.

Perry stressed that staying cool in pressure situations is something the team has to improve on in order to get back to its winning ways in this weekend’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge games.

The Illini are set to take on North Carolina and Pittsburgh in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The team will face off against Pittsburgh first on Friday at 12:30 p.m., then will play the Tar Heels following at 3 p.m. The Illini will get North Carolina again on Saturday at 3 p.m. before wrapping up the trip with an early 9 a.m. start against the Panthers on Sunday.

“I think we just need to calm down,” Perry said. “We acted as if we were trying to execute the plan for world domination instead of just playing softball. It is a game that most of them have been playing since they were five years old, so I think we just have to remember that.”

Perry does not think Illinois is at a disadvantage, having not been able to practice outside as much as most of the opposition so far — besides Providence, each team Illinois has faced has come from a warmer, southern location where outside practices can be held much earlier in the year.

Last season, Illinois did not seem flat or bothered as a cold weather school when it traveled to Puerto Rico. The team left San Juan with two wins over both North Carolina and Georgia Tech and a 9-5 loss to No. 24-ranked California.

“It would be easy to say yes to that, but in our past two years it didn’t affect us at all. We came back from Puerto Rico last year 4-1 and we were in a similar situation where we hadn’t been outside very much,” Perry said. “This year we were able to get outside one weekend in January, which is crazy. These young ladies know the deal, the past two years we’ve been able to overcome that, we just didn’t (last weekend).”

After practice on Tuesday the team had a players-only meeting. Perry did not know what the meeting was centered on, but she is encouraged that the team has taken it upon itself to talk things over at this early junction.

For Perry, it’s a sign of her team’s dedication to getting back on the winning track.

“That’s their meeting, I didn’t even know they were meeting,” Perry said. “They want to win, so I think they’re going to figure out how to get there.”

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