Illinois softball heads to Florida for final weekend of southern tour

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Illinois’ Kylie Johnson (1) hits a foul ball during the second game against Michigan at Eichelberger Field on Saturday April 26. The Illini lost 6-5.

The Illinois softball team looks to solve the puzzle of its early season struggles as it heads into its fourth weekend of play. Head coach Terri Sullivan’s team will head to Florida this weekend for the Under Armour Invitational. Unlike its first three weekends of play, the Illini will face five different opponents in the contest. The team will play the first two games on Friday in Tampa Bay, Florida, before heading to Clearwater, Florida, for their final three games Saturday and Sunday.

Illinois (5-10) will start off against Georgia Southern on Friday. In order to take a win over the 2-11 Eagles, the struggling Illinois pitching staff will have to find a way to get past Taylor Rogers. The sophomore outfielder was named to the preseason All-Sunbelt team and is batting .306 this season.

The Illini will face host Southern Florida (8-7) in the second half of the Friday doubleheader. All of USF’s games this season have been on its home field. The Bulls are coming off a 2-3 record at their own Wilson DeMarini tournament.

On Saturday, Illinois will kick off its time in Clearwater against East Carolina (6-7). This is the Pirates’ first time on the road this season. Despite the losing record, ECU has not had a very strong schedule this season.

Illinois will continue its day in Clearwater against Eastern Michigan (4-6). EMU is looking to continue its three-game winning streak after dropping five of its first six games of the season.

To finish up their tour of the south, the Illini will go up against Florida Gulf Coast University on Sunday. The 8-9 Eagles are looking to continue a four-game winning streak of their own. Before that, FGCU dropped six of its first eight, including two losses to Purdue.

Junior captain Kylie Johnson will rejoin the lineup for the Illini after she missed this past weekend with an injury. Johnson is an ample contributor for the Illini on both the offensive and defensive ends. She is the only Illini to have earned preseason All-Big Ten honors and batted .333 before her injury.

In its first two weekends of play, Illinois lost consecutive games but finished the weekend on a high. It faced the opposite situation this past weekend as the Illini won their first two games but dropped their final three.

Sullivan said that the key for the Illini this weekend is going to be keeping the confidence level up in all situations.

“We’ve had some innings that have really broken our backs,” Sullivan said. “That just can’t happen in our game. You have to play to win innings and really know that your teammates always have your back. If our pitching isn’t where it needs to be, then we need to pick it up offensively and defensively.”

This will be the Illini’s final trip to the south this season — they head to Los Angeles next week before returning to Champaign for the start of Big Ten play. Illinois will host Minnesota March 20-22 at Eichelberger Field.

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