Illini scare Team USA, fall 3-2
March 4, 2004
It was the closest game the U.S. National team has played in its "Aiming for Athens" pre-Olympic tour. Before facing the Illini, Team USA was 10-0 and had beaten eight opponents by the mercy rule of an eight-run lead after five innings.
The Olympians also had only allowed one run in five games last week at the NFCA Leadoff Classic, a tournament regarded as one of the best in the nation. In its ten games leading into the tilt against Illinois, Team USA had outscored opponents 106-6.
Although the game was an exhibition, the Illini had something to prove after falling to Western Michigan 1-0 earlier in pool play. Illinois opened the game against Team USA in an offensive mindset when Lindsey Hamma made good on a dream she had had earlier by leading off the contest with a base hit.
While the Illini didn't score in the first, they were able to draw first blood by pushing two runs across in the fourth inning.
Jenna Hall began the frame with a base hit to center field after working the count on internationally-renowned pitcher Lisa Fernandez. Montgomery then followed with her two-run blast - her second on the young season - over the right field fence that gave the Illini a 2-0 lead.
The Olympic team fought back with two runs of its own in the bottom of the fourth, tying the game 2-2. That is where it stood for two innings, as each team sent only six batters apiece to the plate in the fifth and sixth frames.
Team USA star Jennie Finch relieved Fernandez in the sixth, and shut the door on Illinois, striking out six straight batters.
The game appeared to be headed into extra innings before catcher Jenny Topping belted a walk-off home run to left-center field.
The Illini had nothing to hang their heads about, though, according to coach Terri Sullivan.
"You look at playing the best players in the world and they put on their shoes the same way," Sullivan said. "They struck out, they popped up, so you know that you have to try to win every inning no matter who you play because anybody can truly beat anybody in this game."
Illini hurler Amanda Fortune threw well, retiring the Olympians in order in four of the seven innings. She also didn't allow a walk while striking out four, including Team USA slugger Crystl Bustos.
"Amanda and Janna did what they always do," Sullivan said. "It was a thrilling moment for Amanda to strike out probably the best hitter in the game."
The near-miss against Team USA followed a slow start against Western Michigan. The Illini mustered only four hits and committed two errors en route to a 1-0 loss.
The Broncos scored in the sixth by stringing together a double, a sacrifice bunt and an error by O'Connell.
Illinois returns to pool play on Friday against Villanova at 10 a.m. (CST) and Hofstra at 12 p.m.