Hackett returns to lineup as Illini softball face No. 2 Purdue

The Illinois softball team will have a chance to make up some ground in the conference standings this weekend, as it will host the second-best team in the Big Ten, Purdue. The Illini enter this weekend’s series sporting some momentum after winning three of their last five.

After scoring just four runs during its seven-game losing streak, the Illini offense has responded by scoring 24 runs in the past five games.

“I believe mentally we’re a lot stronger in the box,” shortstop Jessica Davis said. ”We’re going up there with the confidence and we know we have the ability to go up there and have a great offense. It’s just us putting it together and believing in ourselves.”

Illinois (19-20, 3-9 Big Ten) will need to continue to produce Saturday and Sunday, as Purdue (27-13, 9-2) enters this weekend leading the Big Ten in batting average at .329. The Boilermakers are the only team averaging over .300 in the conference and is well ahead of the next best average of .299 (Nebraska).

“(The Boilermaker’s) style of play, they have seven lefties usually in the lineups that are triple threats,” head coach Terri Sullivan said. “They like to run aggressive on the bases and try to put a lot of pressure on your defense.”

The Illini will gain a boost in the lineup this weekend as senior Meredith Hackett will return to the lineup Saturday. Before her absence, she led the Illini in nearly every offensive category.

“She’s a great ball player bottom line,” Sullivan said. “She’s an All-American and a senior who’s started just about every game of her career. It’s leadership and everyone knows she can hurt you with one swing of the bat.”

After missing the last five games, Hackett is excited to return and face a strong opponent.

“It’s always good to get back and be ready,” Hackett said. “We’re going to get a good Purdue team coming in here so it’ll be a good test for us in our Big Ten race.”

The Illini, now in the middle of the Big Ten season, have 12 more conference games ahead of them to do some damage. After Purdue, the Illini will have another opportunity to shake up the standings, as they’ll take on first place Michigan next weekend.

“With the three-game series now, you know, we have four series left, so that’s a lot of games. You never count anybody out at any given time,” Hackett said. “(Purdue is) going to come in here hot, but we’re going to give them all we got.”

On the mound, the Illini will be led by Pepper Gay, who is coming off a strong outing against “Western Illinois”:https://www.dailyillini.com/index.php/article/2012/04/illinois_softball_defeats_western_illinois_at_home. If there is a soft spot to Purdue, it would be its pitching as its team ERA ranks eighth in the Big Ten. But backed by a strong offense, Purdue’s ace Lexy Moore has totaled 18 wins on the season, which ranks fourth in the conference.

“We haven’t had the best Big Ten to start off with,” Davis said. “I think our offense is back, so I believe that if we keep our offense together and defense as well, I think we’re going to give Purdue a fight. We’re not going to lay down.”