Softball gets first look at conference foe

In an early test against Big Ten competition, the Illinois softball team took the field against Michigan State late Saturday night at the FIU Combat Classic in Miami.

The Illini routed the Spartans in five innings, defeating MSU 8-0.

Though the game had no effect on either teams’ conference records, Illinois knew it had a little more on the line as it faced Michigan State, whom the Orange and Blue won’t face in conference play.

“Going in we faced it like a conference game and we really wanted to win because we’re not going to face them during conference,” Illinois junior pitcher Pepper Gay said.

Nebraska’s addition to the Big =Ten resulted in scheduling changes that will see the Illini play just eight conference opponents three times each this season, compared with previously playing 10 teams twice each.

With a chip on their shoulders, the Illini came out hot on both sides of the plate Saturday, as the offense scored five runs in the first inning, led by Meredith Hackett’s three-run home run. Junior starting pitcher Jackie Guy pitched her first complete game shutout of the season, with four strikeouts and just one hit allowed.

“We came out, run-ruled them, we made them scared of us. I think they’re glad they’re not playing us when it actually counts,” Gay said.

Along with Michigan State, Illinois will not face Ohio State or Indiana in conference play this season.

“It was fun to play (Michigan State),” Illinois head coach Terri Sullivan said. “As far as conference play, I wish we played everybody in conference, I think that’s what makes a true conference, but that’s not the case this year.

“I think it was a really good case for our young players to see what it feels like to play a conference team.”

*Illini look for consistency after up-and-down weekend*

Although the Illini struggled to stay consistent in the season’s opening weekend, in which they went 2-3, they flashed their potential in their two victories. On Saturday, the Illini combined to score nine runs and recorded two shutouts as they defeated Michigan State and Alabama-Birmingham 1-0 in eight innings.

“Yesterday, it was exciting we won a one-run ball game with great pitching,” Sullivan said Sunday. “And we won another game with really everything across the board working for us.”

The Illinois pitching staff of Guy and Pepper Gay combined to throw 13 scoreless innings Saturday, allowing three hits and three walks in two games.

Saturday’s success was surrounded by two losses Friday and another defeat Sunday. In those three losses, the Illini were outscored 20-4.

“Early in the season, you kind of learn what you’re made of, coach likes to call it a gut check,” Hackett said. “We didn’t play the way we play, we didn’t play our game, and it’s good to realize that now, and then next week bring our game and play with consistency and with passion.”

With their first weekend of live competition behind them, the Illini will look to fix their inconsistent play this week before heading to Austin, Texas, for the Time Warner Cable Texas Invitational, beginning Friday.

“The first weekend is always interesting,” Gay said. “We don’t know how everything is going to play together. But the season is a long season, it’s not about how you start, it’s how you finish.”