Illinois softball to take on local rival Illinois State

The Illinois softball team will look to regain state bragging rights Wednesday night in the annual matchup against the Illinois State Redbirds.

Illinois State (20-15, 6-3 Missouri Valley) dropped the Illini (16-14, 2-4 Big Ten) twice last season, 10-6 at a game in Urbana and 10-7 in tournament play.

“They’re a tough team. They always have a chip on their shoulder and they’re very aggressive,” shortstop Jessica Davis said. “I would say that they walk around like they have it all.”

The Illini hold the all-time series lead 9-7. The Redbirds are no cream puffs as they have a 3-2 record against the Big Ten this season.

“We expect them to be full throttle,” head coach Terri Sullivan said. “They have pitchers that throw strikes and they’re always very aggressive offensively. They’re a well-respected team in the country, not just in our region.”

Illinois is coming off a poor road weekend in which the Illini were held to just two runs in three games en route to getting swept by the Hawkeyes.

“We had runners on in almost every inning against Iowa,” Sullivan said. “But we couldn’t get those clutch hits, couldn’t get those runners across, so we’ve been working on that in practice.”

Along with low run production numbers on the weekend, the Illinois pitching staff struggled allowing 15 runs in three games. Sullivan has not decided who will take the mound for the Illini, but the staff will need to find consistency as the Redbirds have posted 145 runs this season. The Illini have only scored 89 runs on the season.

“We had a really disappointing weekend,” pitcher Pepper Gay said. “Our offense wasn’t there, our pitching wasn’t there. We know we have to be more aggressive. When we have runners on, we’ve got to get them in.”

The Illini will need to wake up their bats as the Red Birds pitching staff is anchored by a senior duo of Jordan Birch and Megan Warner. Birch has led Illinois State going 12-9 with a 1.85 ERA and 114 strikeouts.

Last weekend’s poor offensive performance came with the absence of third basemen Kelley Wedel, who missed all three games after sustaining a hand injury during a practice drill. She will likely be out about five to six weeks, according to Sullivan. Freshman Jessica Perkins will continue to play third base in Wedel’s absence.

“Kelley is a great third baseman, but I think Jess (Perkins) is doing a great job of stepping in and being a mature freshman,” Davis said. “I think she’s going to do a great job filling in for Kelley.”

Returning home, Illinois has shown early signs of success at Eichelberger Field this season, going 3-1 with victories over Minnesota (3-3, 21-10 Big Ten) and Indiana State (0-9, 12-18 Missouri Valley). Continuing that home stint will be crucial before the Illini go on the road again to take on a formidable opponent in Nebraska (4-2, 21-14 Big Ten).

“You have no choice (but to bounce back),” Sullivan said. “Illinois State’s good and so is Nebraska after that. So you really have to play in the moment. Win or lose, you can’t get too high after a win or too low after a loss.”