Perkins steps up in Wedel’s absence for Illini

Bogged down in its worst losing streak in program history, the Illinois softball team has lost its last seven games, largely due to a slumping offense. The Illini have only managed to produce four runs during the streak. Illinois’ next chance at snapping its streak is Thursday at home against Eastern Illinois.

“No one is comfortable with losing the games that we did,” head coach Terri Sullivan said. “It was actually, you know, two teams (Iowa and Nebraska) that gave us six losses. It’s not seven different opponents.”

“It was two weekends where we really underperformed and ultimately got outplayed.”

Illinois’ slump has come at the same time it has lost senior third baseman and team leader Kelley Wedel, who shattered her finger in practice entering Illinois’ March 31 series against Iowa. The injury required surgery and Wedel is pegged to return to action in about four weeks.

The absence of the four-year starter has certainly hurt the Illini. Before her injury, Wedel totaled 24 hits, five RBIs and one home run in 27 games.

“At the plate she sees the ball so well,” freshman Jess Perkins said. “She’s such a great hitter, she was hitting so well before she got hurt and hopefully when she comes back it’ll be the same thing.”

Despite missing the last seven games, Wedel is third on the team in total hits. She has also totaled a team-leading 10 extra base hits.

“She’s a vocal leader, she has a lot of experience under her,” Sullivan said. “I think she really has a lot of passion for Illinois, but she’s still present. It’s not that she’s not around the team, but you always have to have, at this level, a player to step in and do their job.”

Perkins has taken over the role at third base with Wedel on the sidelines.

“Losing Kelley is a big loss, she was a great leader,” Perkins said. “I realized that I just really had to step up my game to try and get to her level and hopefully just keep up the expectations that she upheld.”

Perkins has been a key addition to the Illini this season, contributing on the field and behind the plate. Her 26 hits are only four short of team leader Meredith Hackett.

“We’ve talked a lot about Perkins’ offense, which she’s stepped in as a young hitter,” Sullivan said. “And now she’s the most consistent hitter all year for us, which shows her mental toughness at the plate and she has that same mental toughness as a player.”

That toughness and attitude to play 100 percent has given her the ability to succeed at any position she plays. Having played all around the diamond in high school, Perkins has already played left field, third base and designated hitter this season. Sullivan even considered using her as catcher when they went through some injuries earlier in the season.

“I really just wanted to come in and do as well as I could. I know being a freshman, it takes a lot to get the respect that all these seniors have earned,” Perkins said. “So I always have to tell myself that I’m just a freshman and I just need to play that role and hopefully do as much I can to help out my teammates as much as possible.”

Perkins was reluctant to say Wedel’s injury is the reason for the quiet bats.

“Losing her is a big loss, but there’s really no excuse for us losing seven games,” Perkins said. “So we just need to pick it up, we need to do this for her and we need to do this for ourselves.”

Illinois has been out-hit 27-43 in its last seven losses, allowing 36 runs total runs while mustering up just four. Sullivan admitted that the offense hadn’t been hitting that well before Wedel went out and that the slump is more of a mental problem.

“We just really need to go out there and have fun and relax,” Perkins said. “We can’t be stressed out about losing anymore and we need to just play the game we’ve been playing our whole entire life. If we do that, then I’m sure that we will be able to go out there and beat any team that we want.”