It was a great season for Illinois Softball, but unfortunately, it came to an end on Saturday as the Illini lost to Virginia Tech 5-1 in the NCAA Regionals. They finished the season with a 35-23 record, including a 10-15 record against Big Ten opponents and a 4-8 record against ranked teams.
NCAA Regional Recap
Game 1: Virginia Tech 6, Illinois 2
In the first game of the NCAA Regional in Lexington, Kentucky, Illinois fell to the Hokies despite keeping it close for the majority of the game. Illinois’ Taylor Edwards was the starting pitcher, and gave up only two runs in the first five innings. However, a tough start to the sixth inning led to her being pulled and replaced by freshman ace, Sydney Sickels. She faced only two batters, giving up a walk and a home run. Akilah Mouzon would close out the game for Illinois, surrendering only one run as the Illini offense was unable to fight back.
Game 2: Illinois 2, Toledo 0
In an elimination game, Illinois took down the Toledo Rockets in stunning fashion. Sydney Sickels threw a gem on the mound, pitching all seven innings while surrendering just three hits and no runs. Though the Illini squandered some opportunities with runners on the bases, it didn’t matter as senior center fielder Kiana Sherlund ended the game in the bottom of the seventh with a walk-off home run over the left field fence.
Game 3: Virginia Tech 5, Illinois 1
Just 30 minutes after defeating Toledo on a sunny day where temperatures climbed into the upper 80s, Illinois found itself back on the field in a rematch against Virginia Tech. Edwards took the mound once again for the Illini, pitching four innings of one-run ball. The fifth inning was a different story, however, as the Illini gave up three runs on two homers without recording a single out. Danielle Brochu would come on the mound in relief, pitching the last three innings and giving up only a single run.
With the victory, Virginia Tech advanced to play Kentucky. The Wildcats would defeat VT 11-1, securing a place in the NCAA Super Regionals.
The Good: Strong Start
Illinois started its season off on a tear, defeating two ranked opponents (No. 22 Oklahoma State and No. 24 Kentucky) in the first two games of the season. The Illini didn’t stop there, winning 18 of their 24 games before Big Ten play began. Illinois then opened the conference season against No. 23 Wisconsin, winning two out of three to take the series. With such a strong start to the season, Illinois was able to pad its win-loss record against an extremely tough Big Ten schedule (more on that later...) and help boost its tournament résumé, which would end up being good enough to get the Illini in.
The Bad: Mid-Season Slump
Coming off that incredible start, the Illini struggled in their next few series, dropping two out of three to a Nebraska team that only went 21-31 this year. That was followed up by another series loss to a much tougher opponent in Minnesota, who would only lose two regular season conference games (one to the Illini) and receive the seventh seed in the NCAA Women’s College World Series. Capping off the bad break in the mid-season was a doubleheader against Missouri, who beat Illinois both times, in two close games. While this rough patch didn’t end up costing the Illini much in the whole scheme of things, it was certainly not ideal at the time.
The Ugly: Big Ten Scheduling
While it’s impossible to face every Big Ten opponent in a series during the course of a single Big Ten season, Illinois drew the short straw when it came to scheduling and wound up facing all five of the Big Ten’s best teams: Michigan, Northwestern, Minnesota, Ohio State, Wisconsin in the regular season. This included a brutal eight-game losing streak where the Illini faced three of them consecutively. Meanwhile, those top five teams only played each other in two series at most, with Michigan facing none of them in the regular season.
Further adding on, Illinois only played two series against worse Big Ten teams, going 5-1 in those games.
Though the tough conference schedule might have assisted Illinois in securing a tourney bid despite its 32-23 record, there needs to be a greater sort of balance in scheduling to ensure fair, equally competitive Big Ten schedules. Even though the NCAA Selection Committee made the right call in the end, chances at tournament bids shouldn’t come down to the mercy of the schedulers.
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