Illinois' Extraordinary Comeback Caps Pair of Victories

First baseman Meredith Hackett belted her first career grand slam as the Illini captured a 12-11 victory over No. 18/21 Houston.
First baseman Meredith Hackett belted her first career grand slam as the Illini captured a 12-11 victory over No. 18/21 Houston.

Feb. 20, 2009

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HOUSTON - What transpired on Friday night for the Illinois softball team was the most remarkable comeback in the history of the program, as the Illini (7-4) delivered a performance full of heart and perseverance to overcome an eight-run deficit and knock off the No. 18/21 Houston Cougars, 12-11, in eight innings at the Cougar Softball Stadium. It was a collective effort for the Orange and Blue, as nine different Illini crossed the plate, eight different Illini had at least one hit and five different Illini drove in a run.

Illinois also claimed a 4-1 win over the McNeese State Cowgirls (2-11) earlier in the day to open the tournament with a pair of victories.

"Everybody on this team put together the best win this program has ever had, and it wasn't just against anybody, it was against the No. 18 team in the country. This is honestly the best comeback we've ever had," head coach Terri Sullivan said. "The heart and the intensity really got us back in the game. The great thing about the heart was that it came from every member of the team."

Illini pitcher Christine Christopoulos picked up her first victory of the season, tossing four and two-thirds innings, allowing just one run on five hits while striking out four. Despite giving up a solo home run, Christopoulos delivered a clutch performance through the final innings as Illinois mounted its comeback.

"I thought Christine showed tremendous composure after they got the home run," Sullivan said. "She threw a bad pitch but got right back out there under pressure and had a great game for us. She showed a lot of guts because she wanted to be in the game and wanted to be under pressure."

The Illini roughed up Cougar pitcher Baillie Lott (2-3) for 12 runs on 13 hits through eight innings as Houston fell to 5-5 on the season. In one of the telltale signs of Illinois' comeback, Lott didn't strike out any Illini.

"When you're in a game like that it takes a lot of out of you," Sullivan said. "There were a few keys to the game, especially in such a long game with a lot of offense, and one of keys was that we didn't have any strikeouts. We had better at-bats, solid defense and our pitchers worked together to get the job done."

Illinois jumped out to the lead in the first inning as second baseman Danielle Zymkowitz singled, stole second and later scored on Hollie Pinchback's base-hit. With a base-hit in each game, Zymkowitz extended her hitting streak to 11 games.

Houston responded with a run in the bottom half of the inning to tie the game at one.

The Illini took a one run lead again in the second thanks to a single and a Cougar error. Designated player Katrina Ross led off the inning with a single and pinch runner Katie Lutes made her way around the bases before scoring on a two-out errant throw on a grounder to second.

Houston busted the game open in the bottom of the third, putting up a seven-spot to take an 8-2 lead. The Cougars took advantage of four hits, four walks and an error to take control of the seesaw affair, then added two more runs in the fourth to take a 10-2 advantage.

With the eight-run-rule in play and Illinois down to its final three outs, the Orange and Blue offense repaid the Cougars with a six-run explosion to cut the lead to two. Centerfielder Jamie Adishian took a leadoff walk and rightfielder Hope Howell followed with a single. Back-to-back walks plated Adishian and a hit-by-pitch added another run as the Illini began their rally. With the bases loaded and one out, first baseman Meredith Hackett further ignited the fire, smashing a 2-0 pitch over the centerfield wall for her first career grand slam and second home run of the season.

The Cougars answered with a solo homer in the bottom half of the inning to make it 11-8, but Illinois refused to back down as catcher Lana Armstrong went deep for the first time this season. Armstrong's one-out home run in the sixth made it 11-9 as the Orange and Blue continued to inch back.

It was Howell's blast in the top of the seventh that propelled the game into extra innings. Shortstop Ashley Conrad led of the inning with a double, but a pair of flyouts put the Illini down to their final out. With a full count, Howell belted her first home run of the season, a shot off the Houston scoreboard in right field that tied the game at 11.

Illinois completed the improbable comeback in the eighth, taking advantage of the international tiebreaker. With Pinchback at second, Armstrong laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt to advance her to third before third baseman Kelley Wedel delivered a single and what turned out to be the game-winning RBI as Illinois went up 12-11.

Now it was the Cougars who were down to their final three outs. Christopoulos struck out the first batter, then Armstrong threw out the runner attempting to steal third for the second out of the inning. A walk and single gave Houston one last gasp, but Christopouls quickly stifled it with a routine grounder back to the circle for the final out, sealing the 12-11 game for the ages.

Illini pitcher Monica Perry (4-3) earned the game-one win, going the distance and matching her career-high of nine strikeouts. The Illini collected 10 hits off Cowgirl pitcher Bethany Stefinsky en route to the victory.

In the opening game of the day, Illinois took a 1-0 lead in the first inning and never looked back. Zymkowitz led off with walk, stole second and made her way to third on a wild pitch. Leftfielder Hollie Pinchback knocked a two-out blooper to left to plate Zymkowitz for the early lead.

The Illini tacked on another run in the second after designated player Katrina Ross roped a one-out single and pinch runner Katie Lutes ran to second on shortstop Ashley Conrad's two-out base-knock. Zymkowitz followed with a grounder to short, but the throw to first sailed wide, allowing Lutes to score and put Illinois up 2-0.

After Perry worked out of a jam in the top of the fifth, the offense responded with a pair of insurance runs in the bottom half of the inning. Centerfielder Jamie Adishian led off with a single and two batters later Pinchback delivered again, this time with a blast over the fence in right-center to make it 4-0.

McNeese managed to pick up a run in the top of the seventh on a trio of singles, but Perry stranded two runners to end the threat and pick up the win.

Illinois continues play on Saturday against Prairie View A&M at 11 a.m. then wraps up the day against Northern Illinois at 3 p.m.