The 2017 Illinois softball season came to a close on Sunday (May 21) afternoon as the Illini fell to tournament host and 14th-seeded Kentucky, 4-2, in the NCAA Kentucky Regional Final at John Cropp Stadium.
The Illini finish the second season under head coach Tyra Perry with a 39-20 record, the fourth-most wins in program history, and made their second-straight NCAA Regional appearance and sixth overall trip in the NCAA Tournament. UI registered a top-four finish in the Big Ten Conference with a 14-8 mark, while also advancing to the conference tournament semifinals.
"This is always tough because every time you are in this situation, it is good that you were here in the first place and then the bad is that there are four seniors that will not be with us anymore that have been a catalyst to our program," said Perry. "I cannot say enough about Nicole Evans, Alyssa Gunther, Ruby Rivera and Breanna Wonderly and what they mean to this program. They definitely set the tone and set the pace for the future. It was an awesome privilege to go to war with them today and everyday throughout this season. My only regret is that I only had two years with those guys."
"I am very pleased with the way we competed throughout the entire tournament, but especially in the last two games against Marshall and then today against Kentucky. I fully believed in that seventh inning that we had a chance, that we were going to push a couple across especially considering who we had coming up in our lineup and what they had done all year. It just did not happen for us this time. We are still learning as you could see. The program had not been in this position in quite some time. We are figuring out how to be here and how to win at this level."
With the loss, the Illini say goodbye to four outstanding seniors in Nicole Evans, Alyssa Gunther, Ruby Rivera and Breanna Wonderly. The quartet was a part of 125 wins and led the Illini to the Big Ten Conference Tournament all four seasons – including a semifinal appearance this season – as well as back-to-back NCAA Regional trips.
"We talk all the time about leaving our mark on the program," said Evans. "We had not been here in a while and it means a lot to do this for our school and for our program. This was just the start. They will be back here every single year plus more, so to start it off is great but they are definitely going a lot farther in the future."
It was a quick start for the Wildcats (39-17), who advance to the NCAA Super Regionals, as a two-out RBI triple to centerfield – that appeared to be caught and then dropped by sophomore Kiana Sherlund - was followed by a two-run home run to make it 3-0 in the opening inning.
UK then added to its lead with an RBI sacrifice fly to right field in the top of the third.
The Illini continued to battle as senior Ruby Rivera knocked a two-out single in the top of the sixth and was then brought home two batters later on an RBI single to left center from junior Annie Fleming.
Down three heading into the final inning, junior pinch hitter Maddi Doane reached on a fielding error by the UK short stop and advanced to third on the play to start things off for the Illini. After an infield single and stolen base by Sherlund, senior Alyssa Gunther plated Doane on an RBI grounder to short stop. It would be all the Illini would score as the rally fell short.
Senior pitcher Breanna Wonderly (21-16) went the distance again for the Illini, allowing four runs on eight hits and two walks, while striking out one in her final outing in the Orange and Blue. Wonderly finished the Regional with 399 pitches thrown.
As a team, the Illini totaled seven hits in the setback. Rivera, Fleming and junior Leigh Farina each posted a pair of hits, with Rivera scoring a run and Fleming contributing an RBI. Sherlund also added her team-high 17th stolen base of the season in the contest.