Hope Howell and the Illini came out victorious over Iowa.
May 7, 2010
Future Illini: you can't know where you're going until you know where you've been. I remember each and every faceoff with Iowa like it was yesterday. *Note: I am only conjuring up these stinging memories to reveal how cutthroat the series have been over the years.
Freshman series vs. Iowa (2007) Went into extra innings. I was on second base for the international tiebreaker in the 8th and was sac-bunted over. We eventually loaded them up, bringing Lana up with two outs and a full count. She swung, but the ball got away from the catcher and I scored on a drop-third strike. We figured that crazy error meant we were destined to win and we were only three outs away from closing the deal. In the bottom of the 8th, we walked a girl, and then Iowa hit a walk-off home run. The next day we were rained out, unable to avenge ourselves, and finished the Big Ten with a losing record.
Sophomore series (2008) World's Largest Tailgate- both games weren't exactly our best offensive performances; we just couldn't string enough hits together. We lost 5-2 and 12-6, respectively. Less than a week later, we would face -and later get run-ruled by them in the Big Ten tournament. Yes, the losses are one disappointment, but to see your beloved seniors fall to the same team on their senior day- and then again to end their season- is heartbreak I hope my underclassmen never have to witness me experience; and let's be honest, something I hope I never have to bear.
Junior series (2009) Our offense was perfect-gamed by their senior pitcher. Moni, then a freshman, had shut them out until the 7th inning when Iowa hit a walk-off homerun. The next game, deflated from the first game, we got run ruled, 8-1. What's worse-the entire night was shown on the Big Ten Network, broadcasting the humiliation to all our loved ones.
Each and every game was so close, yet so far- and every last one left a bad taste in my mouth. So naturally, after these epic showdowns, you can understand why our senior class took our last two games against them so seriously, and had trained our team to go for blood.
SENIOR SERIES (2010)
After Tuesday's practice, Coach Sullivan said to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, when "Not if" we swept Iowa, she would take us to our favorite Mexican restaurant on campus - on her! As if we didn't already want to win... Oh, it's on! I put up a sign that said "El Toro or Bust" in the dugout just in case anyone forgot... But who am I kidding!?! Reading this blog is like watching Titanic. You know what happens...so let's get to the good stuff!!
As mentioned before, Iowa is one of the best teams in the Big Ten, and can't be taken lightly. Z (Danielle Zymkowitz) and I were talking about how unlike Purdue, who thrives by putting pressure on the defense, Iowa is more of a silent killer; they just get one to two runners on base each inning and before you know it, they've got 4 runs. They never play too emotional, but just because they don't jump around and yell doesn't mean they don't have a game plan. We all knew that measly one run was not going to be enough, and it came back to bite us when they rallied with a bases-clearing double, scoring four that inning. But our team believed we would get it done. Why?
a. The bigger the challenge, the more glory in overcoming it
b. We've come back from worse odds
c. Uh, we didn't have a choice
d. All of the above
In the bottom of the 7th, unselfish Cuevas leaned into a pitch to start the rally. Nikki came into pinch hit and tagged up on Acon's (Ashley Conrad) fly out to foul right field. Z slapped an outside pitch that practically parted the 3rd baseman's hair and I hit the same pitch hard enough for their shortstop to fumble it and Nikki to reach home.
Later in our locker room, I asked Nikki where the ball ricocheted in order for her to score. "Nowhere," she replied. "So, what?" I asked. "You looked her dead in her eye and ran?" Nikki just giggled. That ball was right in front of the shortstop and she didn't get Nikki out! Ohhhh, the power of speed.
So with Z on 2nd and yours truly on 1st, Mer (Meredith Hackett) took the very first pitch over the flag pole. WALK OFF!!! Audi (Audrey Gallien) swears it was still in the air when Mer rounded 3rd base. At that moment, I was conflicted between sprinting to the plate and sprinting backward to tackle Mer. The only thing stopping me? The rule book. I was afraid they'd call me out if I ran backward. (But we ended up winning by two. Winning by one was good enough for me, and if I could have done the math quickly enough, I would have done it). When Mer finally reached home, we were jumping up and down so hard, someone jumped down on my helmet, causing my facemask to split my lip. I didn't even realize until I tasted blood while singing the loyalty song. But who cares? This is the blood of a WINNER.
In all sincerity, we know we're talented, but I think sometimes we even surprise ourselves when we see the amazing things we're capable of. I do not- I repeat, do not - plan on having kids, but I swear, if I do, half of their bedtimes stories will end with "and the Illini advanced."
Let's just say, we've learned our lesson from Ohio State. So after the walk off, while we were incredibly excited, the feeling couldn't linger- we still had one more W to grab, and we knew Iowa was coming after us with a fury. Z led off the first with a triple.
Assuming this could be yet another very close game, I hit a sac fly to score her. Little did I know it would be the only out for the next 3 runs! When Mer hit one out, the dugout screamed- not only was this another one of her back to back HRs, but now we're up by two. Then Hollie hit one! We thought "Awesome...this'll give our defense even more confidence in the field and wiggle room for Pepper to work aggressively. Then Audi gets up and ropes one over the left field wall. Back to back to back home runs! Ok, now this is just ridiculous.... I can just see the little wide-eyed girls running up to us after the game with their posters chanting "Mer! Hollie! Audi!" -- I just wanna tell the smallest girl in the group "You know what, kid? There's no shame in the sac fly! It's the same RBIs- you remember that." ☺ But what can you say? Fans dig the long ball.
As far as our defense goes, when you play great teams, you have to understand they're going to get their hits, and maybe go on a streak for an inning, but it's all about how you respond back. Each time they scored, our offense wasn't phased, grabbing those runs back and distancing ourselves up to 6 runs at one point. *As far as that bases-clearing triple goes, I don't know how that ball wasn't a home run; I think the collected will of our team and fans willed that ball back in the park- it just had to be.
It got a little tense in the later innings, as Iowa took advantage of the tight strike zone. Ok ...you asked for it. Time to bring in the wild thing. Yes, I mean Jackie Guy, our very own Rick Vaughn, #99.
There are no words to describe how clutch Jackie was that night- she just always shows up when you need her the most. I always feel relaxed and confident when she comes in relief. For example, last Jack came in with one out and runners on second and third. The first batter fouled one off by the left field line. Kel Del (Kelley Wedel), Vaji and I went as hard as we could, but that ball was in the Bermuda Triangle, out of all of our reach. Jogging back, drained from the day and out of breath -there it was, my favorite part of Jackie's pitching-her communication with her teammates. A beam of light shone down on Jackie as she nodded, pointed, and said "Way to hustle." That's all a defense needs! Nothing makes a player want to give more than when the pitcher understands you're working as hard as they are. With Jackie, she's not in the circle; she's down in the trenches with you, and I know I speak for the team when I say we'll crash through a wall for any one of our pitchers, but for Jackie? We'll do it with a smile. After she praised the left side for our effort, I immediately felt recharged, knowing her focus would see us through. Sure enough, one sac fly and a wicked curve ball K later, we were in the dugout.
In the 7th inning, we got two outs quickly. However, Iowa wasn't going down without a fight. One walk and a hit later, they had runners on first and second. I promised myself that if the last out was a fly ball to me, I wouldn't celebrate. I would have the focus of a telekinetic and would hold onto that ball `til the umpire pried it out of my glove. Suddenly, Iowa hit a shot in the right-center gap! In true Acon fashion, before I could take my first angle left, she had read the ball perfectly, making a sliding catch and holding onto that ball tighter than a pickle jar. ☺
Throughout the year, I had always envisioned beating them in dramatic fashion, but the material from these two games-- you can't make this stuff up! The only difference: in my daydreams, after we swept them, I collapsed in the outfield, like Vince Lombardi would have wanted it- "lying exhausted on the field of battle--victorious." Well, so much for the plan. My adrenaline and Illini tradition prevented me from doing either. I sprinted to Acon, bear hugged Jackie. Unfortunately, the game ended after our favorite Mexican restaurants had closed and we entered our huddle only to hear "Ok, get some sleep. DePaul tomorrow." Guess we'll be celebrating SEIS de Mayo.
In conclusion, for those who didn't see my Facebook status: "The Illini have officially beat Iowa. I can die now."