Softball ignores competition, focuses on honing own team

Heading into the third week of play, Illinois softball head coach Terri Sullivan isn’t worried about what the competition is doing. She wants her players to focus on what’s going on in their own dugout.

“We’re trying to focus on our own game plan,” Sullivan said. “I think we’ve played pretty aggressive when we’ve played against top teams, but at this point of the season it’s about getting better. Our emphasis has been driving the ball. No matter who it is, we want to start doing that.”

The opposition may not be nationally ranked this week, but the Illini will face no shortage of competitive teams at this weekend’s NFCA Leadoff Classic in Clearwater, Fla. The Orange and Blue will have matchups against South Florida (6-1), Hofstra (0-3), Winthrop (4-4), Massachusetts (3-2) and Boston (0-0).

“I think it’s great competition,” Sullivan said. “A commonality that I think all of these teams have is strong pitching. South Florida has started out great, and Hofstra is traditionally one of the better teams from out east.”

The Illini will open the tournament Friday afternoon against the USF Bulls, whose only loss this season came from top-ranked Florida in eight innings. The Illini will also play a Massachusetts team that they played in their season opener Feb. 10, losing 4-1.

“We’re just looking to win,” freshman utility player Jess Perkins said. “We don’t care who we play. It doesn’t matter if it’s the No. 1-ranked team or the last-ranked team. We’re just going out there to win, do everything that we’ve practiced this week and play our best.”

Perkins, who has split time between right field and designated hitter, ranks third on the team in batting average (.304) and on-base percentage (.385). She also ties for the current team lead in runs, with four.

Through eight games, the Illini have struggled from the plate, scoring just 22 runs. Sullivan and her staff have the team focused on hitting with runners on base. The Orange and Blue have left 58 runners on (7.25 per game) in their eight contests this season.

“We’ve been working on driving the ball,” Sullivan said. “Up to this point, we have just missed on some clutch hitting. We’ve gotten a lot of swings in and have been doing some scrimmaging with runners on and hitting in live situations.”

In those eight games, it has been the Illini pitching that has kept the team close. The starting duo of Pepper Gay and Jackie Guy, along with Shelese Arnold in relief, has held opponents to 2.77 earned runs per game.

“We work really well together,” Gay said. “Jackie has her own style of pitching, and I have mine. And Shelese comes in and throws a really good drop ball. So we complement each other really well.”

Sullivan hopes her team can finally put everything together and show some consistency this weekend, while hopefully racking up a few wins.

“Now it’s a matter of playing a great game from start to finish,” she said. “We’d like to come out and score in the first inning or score first no matter who we play.”