Illinois Softball begins its 20th season today, playing in two games in Houston to kick off the 2019 campaign. Following last year’s 37-18 season and sixth place conference finish, the Illini are looking to improve and make the NCAA Women’s College World Series bracket this year.
Looking at this year’s schedule, the non-conference slate does not seem to be that imposing, with four games against Top-25 opponents in the preseason USA Today/NFCA poll. Of those four games, three are this weekend as the Illini play Oklahoma State, ranked 22nd, today and tomorrow and play 13th ranked Kentucky today as well. The Illini won’t face any other ranked opponents until mid-March, when they face fourth-ranked Oklahoma, who went 57-5 last year.
In conference play, the only Big Ten teams ranked were Michigan (#19) and Minnesota (#21), while Ohio State and Northwestern both received votes. Illinois will play a home series against the Golden Gophers on April 5-7, and also has a home series against the Wolverines from April 19-21.
The Illinois roster returns many key pieces from last year’s squad, and its experience should be critical to the success of the 2019 team. On the mound, seniors Emily Oestreich (16-10, 3.26 ERA) and Taylor Edwards (14-7, 3.32 ERA) both return, after impressive junior campaigns, where they combined to pitch 283 of Illinois’ 366.1 innings.
Stepping up to the plate will be many of the same players from last year. Leading the charge on offense is Kiana Sherlund, a senior outfielder who led the team in batting average (.397) and RBIs (47), among other categories. Other players to look out for include redshirt-senior outfielder Carly Thomas, who slashed .363/.431/.626 last year, and sophomore catcher Bella Loya, who batted .362 with 10 home runs and 37 RBIs in the 2018 season.
Illinois brings in numerous newcomers to the roster this season, including eight freshmen and two transfers. Combined with an experienced group of eight seniors, three juniors and six sophomores, there’s a lot that can go right for the Illini in 2019.
Last season, five Big Ten teams made the NCAA Tournament, and the Illini were the sixth team, out by half a game. Illinois definitely has the talent and ability to make the NCAA Tournament this year if they can perform at the same level as last year.
With 23 conference games on the slate, I’m going to predict that the Illini go 14-9 in conference play, which would definitely place them in the upper half of the conference. The non-conference slate is a bit trickier, but I think Illinois will play just above .500, at about the 18-14 mark. Overall, this would place the Illini at 32-23, which is a slight drop from last year and would make Illinois a bubble team once again. We’ll have to wait and see how the season ends up going, but it should be another exciting campaign as spring sports kick off in earnest this month.
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