Illini Take One From No. 20 Nebraska in Front of Near-Sellout Crowd
April 5, 2014
Urbana, Ill. - On a gorgeous spring afternoon in Urbana, the Fighting Illini softball team hosted the 11th-Annual World's Largest Softball Tailgate, followed by a doubleheader with No. 20 Nebraska. A spectacular crowd of 1,289 fans witnessed the Illini take down the nationally-ranked Huskers, 11-4, in the series opener, before NU evened the score with a 9-4 victory in the nightcap. After the split, the Illini moved to 18-14 (2-6 Big Ten), while Nebraska checks in at 25-12 (4-4 Big Ten).
Saturday's crowd marked the second-most fans ever to attend a softball game at Eichelberger Field, trailing only the 2007 World's Largest Softball Tailgate, when a near-capacity crowd of 1,445 helped the Illini to win the award for the Best Single-Game Promotion for an Olympic Sport from the Big Ten Conference. The attendance marked the sixth time in the Illini's 15-year history that the Orange and Blue have surpassed the 1,000-fan mark and the first time since WLST IX in 2012 (Note: WLST X had a strong turnout in 2013, but the game that followed was rained out so no attendance figure was recorded.)
"The environment was electrifying, and I think we really fed off that energy," said Head Coach Terri Sullivan. "Stacy (Dally) and her Marketing staff did an awesome job with the tailgate, and our team was proud to be wearing Orange and Blue."
The Illini offense had a productive day, hitting .316 with 18 hits, 15 runs, 11 walks and a .526 slugging percentage, but Nebraska's hitters were also prolific, leading to the doubleheader split. Jenna Mychko and Kylie Johnson both collected four hits and two RBI, as Mychko homered and Johnson tripled and scored three times. Additionally, Alex Booker went 3-for-5 with three walks and a home run, slugging 1.200, scoring twice and driving in two, while Allie Bauch and Ruby Rivera both also walked three times.
"I really like how we competed all day," said Sullivan. "We were dialed in and fought hard in the win and the loss. We will need to do that tomorrow as well. (Evans) gave us a big offensive boost today, and Mychko really showed tremendous leadership."
Game 1: Illinois 11, Nebraska 4 | Box Score (PDF)
Illinois captured its second win over a ranked opponent this season in the series opener against No. 20 Nebraska, cruising to an 11-4 victory with the help of two four-run innings and a pair of Illini home runs. Alex Booker started the scoring with a solo home run in the bottom of the first, and Evans crushed a two-run homer in the second to drive in the first two of her four RBI in the game. The rookie right fielder went 2-for-4 in the game, as did Kylie Johnson, who scored twice, and Jenna Mychko who drove in a run.
"(Nicole Evans) is very confident kid," sad Sullivan. "She has great power, and we expect to her as a young player to really grow as a hitter. She's going to hit some balls like she did today and she's going to have some strikeouts, too, and we don't want her to change her aggressive mentality at the plate. She's very strong, a really smart player with a great positive attitude. She exudes a positive attitude every day and there is not someone who is more in it for her team and the Fighting Illini than her."
Allie Bauch doubled, walked twice and scored a pair, while Booker was 2-for-2 with two walks and two runs. Ruby Rivera walked twice, drove in a run and scored a team-best three times, and Brittany Sanchez hit an RBI single in the sixth to drive in the final run of the game.
Brandi Needham improved to 13-6 on the year, allowing four runs on nine hits and a walk with three strikeouts over the first five innings. Shelese Arnold recorded her first career save by tossing a pair of scoreless innings in relief, allowing three hits and a walk.
Tatum Edwards started for Nebraska, but gave up seven earned runs on four hits and four walks with just one strikeout over the first 2.0+ innings, falling to 13-8. Emily Lockman relieved her midway through the third, and allowed four runs, all unearned, on six hits and two walks, striking out three.
Every starter but the Huskers' leadoff batter had at least one hit in the game, as Nebraska out-hit Illinois 12-10, but the Huskers left nine runners on base, driving in only four of their baserunners. Dawna Tyson was the most productive batter for Nebraska, hitting a pair of RBI doubles, while Marjani Knighten drove in the first two Nebraska runs on a two-run homer.
Booker put the Illini on the board first in the bottom of the first, drilling a solo home run just inside the right field foul pole to make it 1-0 Illinois.
The Huskers fought back in the top of the second, as Armstrong beat out a bunt single, and Knighten gave Nebraska the lead with a two-run homer to left. Muir singled up the middle, and Tyson ripped an RBI double to right center to make it 3-1 Nebraska.
The Illini tied the game right back up in the bottom of the second, as Rivera drew a leadoff walk, and Evans hit her first home run at Eichelberger Field to knot the score at three.
Illinois took back the lead in the bottom of the third, putting up four runs and chasing starter Tatum Edwards from the circle. Bauch led off with a double off the top of the wall in straightaway center. Johnson beat out an infield single, then Booker walked to load the bases. Jess Perkins was hit by a pitch for the 19th time in her career to drive in a run, and a four-pitch walk of Rivera made it 5-3 Illinois. After running a 1-1 count on Mychok, Edwards moved out to left field, and Emily Lockman came in to pitch. She got the first two outs, but Evans then came through with two more two-out RBI, knocking a bloop single to left, to make it 7-3 Illini before Lockman could finish out the inning.
Nebraska got one back in the top of the fourth, as Woolman singled with two outs and Tyson hit her second RBI double of the game to make it 7-4.
The Huskers had a scoring threat in the top of the fifth, loading the bases on a pair of singles and a walk, but nice plays in the inning by Booker and Rivera kept NU from crossing the plate.
Illinois put up another four-spot in the bottom of the sixth, putting together a two-out rally off Lockman. Bauch got it started with a four-pitch walk, then Johnson singled and Booker walked to load the bases. Lockman struck out Perkins for the second out, then Rivera hit a hard grounder off the third base bag to drive in a pair of unearned Illini runs. Mychko and Sanchez followed with back-to-back RBI singles to carry an 11-4 lead into the final inning.
The first two Nebraska batters singled in the top of the seventh, but Arnold turned a game-ending double play to help herself out of a jam and seal up her first career save.
Game 2: Nebraska 9, Illinois 4 | Box Score (PDF)
Nebraska evened the series in game two, getting on the board early and maintaining a lead throughout the game to pull out the split with a 9-4 final score. The Huskers put the rock back in the hands of Tatum Edwards (14-8), who found more success in game two, allowing four runs on five hits and four walks with two strikeouts over five innings. Emily Lockman relieved her to start the sixth and tossed two scoreless innings, allowing three hits and a walk with two strikeouts.
Shelese Arnold (4-7) returned to the circle to start game two for the Illini, but struggled with illegal pitch calls, allowing four runs, two earned, on four hits, two walks and four illegal pitches with one strikeout in 2.0+ innings. Jade Vecvanags relieved her in the third inning and allowed five runs, four earned, on seven hits and four walks with one strikeout over the final five frames.
Kylie Johnson, Jess Perkins and Jenna Mychko all went 2-for-4 in the game, as Mychko homered in the second and Johnson ripped a two-run triple and scored in the fifth. Vecvanags was 1-for-1 with a run scored and Booker tabbed the remaining hit and RBI, along with a walk.
Marjani Knighten couldn't make an out in the offensive lineup, going 3-for-3 with a walk, two RBI and a run, while Kylee Muir was 1-for-2 with two walks, a run and a bases-clearing double, one of four two-basers for the Huskers in the game. Alicia Armstrong also had a strong day at the plate, going 2-for-4 with an RBI and three runs scored.
Sloppy play by the Illini defense led to a pair of unearned runs in the top of the first. Taylor Edwards led off with a double. Arnold got the next two batters to pop up, but an error by Perkins at first prolonged the inning, and an illegal pitch allowed Edward to score. Knighten then singled through the right side to put Nebraska ahead 2-0.
Mychko put Illinois on the board with a solo home run in the bottom of the second, but Nebraska added to its lead in the top of the third. Armstrong doubled to left center to put two runners in scoring position, and another illegal pitch made it 3-1. Vecvanags replaced Arnold in the circle, but allowed another RBI single to Knighten before Stokes lined into a double play, the Illini's league-leading 20th DP of the season.
The Huskers doubled their lead in the top of the fifth, as a single and two walks loaded the bases, and Muir cleared them with a double to the wall in left center. Nebraska tacked on an unearned run off an RBI single by Woolman to make it 8-1, before Mychko threw her out stealing second to end the inning.
Illinois chipped away at the Huskers' lead in the bottom of the fifth, as Vecvanags and Bauch got on with a hit by pitch and a walk, respectively, and Johnson drilled a two-run triple to the corner in left. Booker then drove in Johnson with an RBI ground out to make it 8-4.
"As cliché as it sounds, we're the Fighting Illini; we're not going to go down without a fight," said Booker. "Obviously no one wants to go home early, so were always going to stick to our game plan and keep hitting, keep battling and working the count, and keep doing what we do. We can't let the game prior to whatever inning were in get to us and have to just keep playing our ball."
Nebraska added an extra run in the top of the sixth, as Decker doubled and Armstrong drove her in with a two-out single through the left side.
The Illini loaded the bases with no outs in the top of the seventh, but Lockman pitched herself out of the jam to finish out the doubleheader with a final score of 9-4.
Next Up: Illinois and No. 20 Nebraska return to Eichelberger Field for the rubber match on Sunday, April 6, with both teams looking for the series title. The series finale will be carried on the Big Ten Digital Network (video stream), as well as on WDWS 1400 AM, with Brian Moline on the call. First pitch is set for Noon.