Illinois plays double-header Saturday despite rainy conditions

By Gabby Hajduk, Staff writer

Following an extra-inning win over Eastern Illinois University last Tuesday, the Illinois softball team traveled to Nebraska for its first Big Ten series on the road.
Friday’s game was postponed due to weather, moving the series start to Saturday afternoon. However, the Illini suffered a 3-2 loss which moved them to 21-8 on the season. While Illinois came into the Nebraska game on a three-game winning streak, the Huskers snapped a 12-game losing streak with the victory, and also recorded their first Big Ten win.
“We started out strong and then we started playing not to lose,” head coach Tyra Perry said. “Nebraska is well-coached but they’ve been on a slide. We had our chances and left too many runners on. We played tentative in situations where we needed to be tough.”
The Illini led for four-straight innings before Nebraska rallied in the bottom of the sixth to score two runs taking the one-run lead. A fielding error by the Illini scored the tying run for Nebraska on a squeeze bunt. The winning run was scored off a sacrifice fly.
Prior to Nebraska’s short run, the Illini defense had a strong outing, only picking up two errors. The defense was led by freshman standout Sydney Sickels who pitched the whole game and moved to a 13-4 record. Sickels gave up just one unearned run while striking out three batters.
Nebraska got things started on their home field, using a home run from junior Tristen Edwards to take an early 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning. From there, the Huskers were held scoreless up until the sixth inning, while still getting a total of six hits.
After a three-and-out first inning, sophomore Bella Loya and senior Veronica Ruelius heated the bats up and knocked back-to-back home runs to give the Illini a 2-1 lead in the second inning. Loya led Illinois’ offense in the contest going 2-for-3 at the plate with an RBI and a run.
The next four innings were quiet for both teams while the Illini held on to the one-run lead. Illinois missed several scoring opportunities by leaving a runner on base for four straight innings.
Action picked back up in the sixth inning from Nebraska, but Illinois failed to get a hit in the top of the seventh inning which finalized the loss. Perry hopes the Illini can be more aggressive in the double-header on Sunday to clinch their second Big Ten series.
“We’re going to watch film and work that way, but a lot of this isn’t about practicing, it’s about our mindset,” Perry said. “We have to have the right mindset.”
Illinois softball wrapped up their three-game series at Nebraska on Sunday with a doubleheader after losing the first game on Saturday. The Illini split on Sunday to lose the series and move to a 22-9, 3-3 record.
After the loss on Saturday, Perry said the team needed more energy and toughness to pull out the series win. The Illini brought restored energy Sunday morning with an 11-8 extra-inning win but lost again in the afternoon falling 5-4.
“I think we lost the energy battle all weekend,” Perry said. “We ran into a Nebraska team that was on a slide and they were hungry. We misread that and didn’t come prepared for that. I think there’s a lesson in that.”
Illinois fight was made apparent early in the first game. The Illini started things off with a five-run first inning that began with a double from lead-off batter senior Carly Thomas. Thomas quickly earned a 1-0 lead after a wild pitch and a fielding error.
Ruelius capitalized on three straight hits with a grand slam, pushing Illinois to a 5-0 lead. The homer was the first grand slam for Illinois this season.
Nebraska began to inch their way back in the second inning with a home run to cut the lead to 5-1.
The Illini fired right back two-run home run from freshman Kailee Powell in the third inning. Powell’s first career homer was followed up by an RBI single from Loya in the fourth inning to extend Illinois’ lead to 8-1.
The Huskers added on a pair of runs in the fourth inning with a two-run shot out of left field. After a few scoreless innings from Illinois, Nebraska took advantage with a four-run sixth inning to bring the score to 8-7.
Sickels entered the circle after a scoreless top of the seventh for Illinois. Sickels gave up a homerun for Nebraska to tie the game but would soon pitch a three-and-out eighth inning to earn her 14th career win.
Illinois revived themselves in the top of the eighth inning. After a pair of singles and a hit-by-pitch, Loya came to the plate with bases loaded and two outs. The catcher came up big for the Illini with a three-RBI double to earn the 11-8 win.
Loya totaled four hits throughout Sunday with a team-high six RBI. The sophomore recorded a .545 batting average over the weekend with six hits including two doubles and two home runs.
“I love being in pressure situations, those are the most fun because those are the parts of the game you remember the most,” Loya said. “Anytime there’s a pressure situation I’m always happy to be in it.”
After a strong offensive performance from both teams in the first game, the back-half of the doubleheader had a slower start.
The Illini held a 1-0 lead through the first five innings. After a single from senior Kiana Sherlund and a double from Thomas, redshirt-senior Annie Fleming hit an RBI single to give Illinois the advantage.
Neither team scored until Nebraska hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the fifth inning to quickly take a 3-1 lead. With the top of the order leading off the sixth inning, the Illini posted a three-run inning of their own. Fleming got on base first with a single before Loya came up clutch again with a two-run homer. An RBI double from sophomore Maddison Demers created a 4-3 lead.
The Huskers continued to fight for their first Big Ten win by hitting an RBI double in the bottom of the sixth inning to tie the game 4-4. Illinois failed to regain the lead in the seventh inning, giving Nebraska the last chance.
After pitching six innings, Sickels was replaced by senior Taylor Edwards who took the loss in the bottom of the seventh inning. A walk followed up with a sacrifice bunt gave Nebraska a runner at third who scored on an RBI single.
“We have to be stronger,” Perry said. “We’ve made a lot of mistakes. It makes the game more difficult than it needs to be so if we can solidify our defense, have a better identity and become stronger, it’ll help us in the long run.”
Illinois will head back to Champaign to start a four-game homestand against Illinois State University on Wednesday night.