Following a 32-23 season, Illinois Softball had its name called Sunday evening, joining the 64-team pool all competing for the NCAA Softball Championship title. The Illini will head to Lexington, Kentucky, this weekend to compete in the double-elimination Regionals round, and will open up play against 45-9 Virginia Tech on Friday.
That game will be on ESPN3 at 11 a.m. CT.
Big Ten Tournament Recap
Illinois entered the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 9 seed, and opened up play against No.8-seed Nebraska. Illinois would pick up the win, 6-4. Sydney Sickels threw 6.2 innings, while Carly Thomas drove in three runs and Annie Fleming would have two hits in three at-bats, including a home run.
The Illini would face off against regular season champions Michigan in the second round, and lost in heartbreaking fashion, 1-0, in eight innings. Taylor Edwards had one of, if not the, greatest performances of her career, throwing seven shutout innings while giving up only seven hits. The Illini’s luck would run out in extra innings, however, as Michigan’s Lexie Blair hit a walk-off home run to close the game.
NCAA Softball Championship Preview
With this year’s appearance in the tournament, the Illini have now made three appearances in the four seasons under the direction of Tyra Perry. Coincidentally, Illinois will have traveled to Lexington, Kentucky, for all three of those postseason appearances. Also in the Lexington regional are host team Kentucky, Virginia Tech and Toledo.
While Kentucky received the No. 14 national seed, Virginia Tech is ranked ahead of the Wildcats in the NFCA/USA Today coaches poll with the Hokies being ranked 22nd and the Wildcats 23rd. Meanwhile, Toledo won the MAC Tournament and thus its auto-bid, and were ranked 114 in RPI.
Facing off against Virginia Tech in their first game, the Illini will face one of the greatest pitching duos in NCAA softball. The Hokies are the only NCAA school with two pitchers who each have 20 wins, in Carrie Eberle (25-6) and Keely Rochard (20-3). Those two pitchers threw all but four innings for the Hokies all year, and will provide critical depth for VT in the double-elimination format of the Regionals round. In order to advance, the Illini will have to figure out the Hokie pitching, who have an incredible 1.88 ERA on the season as a team.
Illinois already defeated Kentucky once this year, in a 6-5 extra-inning affair. That game was during the very first week of the season for the Illini, and Sydney Sickels pitched an eight-inning complete game to pick up her first collegiate victory. Kentucky’s pitching isn’t exceptional by any means with a 4.06 team ERA, but they played an incredibly tough schedule, including a grueling conference slate in the SEC. If the Illini offense can capitalize against Kentucky once again, that’d be a great start to picking up a critical upset win. However, it’ll take another strong pitching performance from the Illini, as Kentucky is extremely capable of piling runs on their opponents, scoring 10 or more runs in 14 of its games this season.
The last opponent in the same regional pool as the Illini are Toledo. The Rockets won the MAC Tournament despite being the No. 7 seed, stealing a bid in the process. Sitting just above .500 with a 29-26 record, Toledo is the obvious lowest-ranked team of the group, with no wins against ranked opponents. They shouldn’t pose much of a threat to any of the other three teams in the regional pool, though anything can happen in a single game.
Looking at the teams in this regional, I’d put Virginia Tech as my favorite to win it all. Despite being only 2-2 against Top 25 opponents, their pitching separates them from the rest of the pack. With two great pitchers they can select from, they’ll be a tough out in the double-elimination format with their depth and skill.
I honestly struggle to see any of the other three teams making it out of the Regional, but if I had to select one it’d be Kentucky. The Wildcats have played the toughest of schedules and are playing at home, which could give them the advantage needed to upset a team like Virginia Tech.
In order for Illinois to advance, it’ll take some luck. Virginia Tech and Kentucky both won’t go down without a fight, and I’d be surprised to see either of these teams receive their second eliminating loss from anybody else but each other. Illinois might be able to make some noise with an upset win or two, but it’ll take three victories to advance out of the Regional, which would be a difficult — but not impossible — task for the Illini.
Toledo, meanwhile, has practically no chances of making it out intact, with all the other teams in the pool being on a completely separate tier.
After being snubbed from last year’s NCAA Tournament, the Illini are looking to make a run at it this year, and while the path ahead is difficult for them, anything’s possible in the postseason and it all starts on Friday.
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