Illinois Softball is off to a great start, cruising through much of its non-conference slate on its way to a 16-5 start on the season. The Illini were briefly in the NCAA Top 25, but are still receiving votes at this time.
The Illini are 2-2 against Top 25 opponents, defeating #13 Kentucky and splitting two games with #22 Oklahoma State in the season’s first weekend, while falling to second-ranked Oklahoma this past Saturday.
Looking at the 21 games played to open the season, it’s no wonder why the Illini are off to a hot start. As a team, they’re batting .329, while their opponents have only posted a .287 average. Illinois’ team on-base percentage is .408, and its slugging percentage sits at a healthy .541.
If this continues as the Illini head into Big Ten play starting with a home series against Wisconsin next weekend, it should make for an exciting campaign, and a near-definite lock for the NCAA Tournament and the road to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City.
Looking at Illinois’ top performers, two players are batting at or above .400. Annie Fleming is slashing .405/.470/.649 with five home runs and 14 RBI. Meanwhile, Bella Loya is batting .400, and leading the team in both RBI and home runs, with 23 and eight respectively.
Carly Thomas has also been an offensive threat for the Illini, batting .384 with four home runs and 17 RBI.
Looking Ahead: It Looks Good!
In my season preview for the Illini, I predicted an 18-14 non-conference slate and a 32-23 season record, putting Illinois on the bubble for tournament selection. I’m very happy that this already seems to be proven wrong, from the get-go.
Looking at the remainder of Illinois’ non-conference games, with no ranked opponents left, these last nine games should favor Illinois heavily. I’m now expecting anywhere from 24 to 26 wins against non-conference opponents.
Meanwhile, looking at the Big Ten schedule once again, four teams are currently ranked (#19 Indiana, #21 Minnesota, #23 Wisconsin, and #25 Michigan), and one other team (Northwestern) is receiving considerable votes. Illinois will play all of these teams in the regular season with the exception of Indiana. With the rest of the Big Ten far behind, I don’t imagine those games would pose too much trouble for the Illini. Illinois could very well end up winning 16 or 17 conference games.
If Illinois can keep up its high level of play as they start to face tougher competition against conference opponents, this team should finish fourth or fifth in the Big Ten, and be a lock for the NCAA Tournament and have a shot at making it to the College World Series.
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