Illini look to stay hot in B10-ACC Challenge

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Photo courtesy of Illini Athletics

Sophomore pitcher Sydney Sickels pitches at Eichelberger Field. The Illini pitching staff helped coin a 4-0 start to the season last weekend in Florida.

By Carson Gourdie, Staff Writer

The Illini are flying south to the Tobacco Road city of Raleigh, North Carolina to take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish before facing host, the North Carolina State Wolfpack, in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Similar to the Big Ten-ACC Challenge in basketball, the teams look to show off their conference pride and ability to secure a victory in the contests.

Also, the Illini might be heading into this tournament at the right time.

Last weekend in Clearwater, Florida, Illinois’ pitching staff shut down the opposition in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Classic, only giving up seven runs of four games. Led by sophomore pitcher Sydney Sickels, who pitched 15 and two-thirds scoreless innings, Illinois went 4-0 in the tournament, knocking off two ranked teams, No. 21 Mississippi and No. 23 Auburn, respectively.

The Fighting Irish and the Wolfpack, who also participated in the NFCA, didn’t have the same amount of success as the Illini in the Classic.

Notre Dame, which is coming off of a 37-18 season and an NCAA Regional appearance, started the Classic 0-2 before winning their final three games to finish 3-2.

The Irish played two of the Illini’s opponents but lost to the Auburn Tigers, 4-1, before knocking off Ole Miss, 7-5. Like Sickels, junior pitcher Alexis Holloway shined for Illinois, recording a 0.78 ERA in 18 innings of play, laying the groundwork for a potential pitching duel when the two play each other this weekend.

The Wolfpack, on the other hand, had even a tougher showing in the NFCA.

Despite knocking off a ranked Ole Miss squad – which all three of previously mentioned teams also defeated — the Wolfpack’s momentum wore off fast, losing three out of four to end the Classic 2-3. North Carolina State’s pitching staff was blasted by the other programs, giving up 13 runs to Illinois’ Big Ten ally Minnesota and nine to Mississippi State. The only silver lining the Wolfpack did show off some promise at the plate, putting up seven runs on two different occasions.

As for Illinois, aside from the outstanding pitching performance from Sickels, they also showed the ability to come up clutch and close out games. Besides their opening 8-2 victory over Liberty, Illinois never won by more than two runs and never scored more than five. While the Illini are focusing on improving offensive production, they still have steady forces in the lineup to pick up the slack when the bats go cold, especially sophomore infielder Avrey Steiner, who batted .571 over the four-game stretch.

While the Illini are still unranked despite their hot 4-0 start, they received 17 votes in the U.S.A. Coaches Poll, giving them a de facto ranking of No. 30 in the NCAA. Even though the Irish and Wolfpack, both unranked, wouldn’t give the Illini statement victories, a strong showing this week could leverage more votes in Illinois’ favor.

The Illini begin play against Notre Dame on Friday, followed by a doubleheader Saturday with Notre Dame and North Carolina State before finishing off the Big Ten-ACC Challenge with the North Carolina State Sunday afternoon.

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