BLOOMINGTON — In each of the last two years, the Michigan softball team has been upset in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. This year, No. 9 seed Illinois will try to extend that streak.
On Thursday, the Fighting Illini used a three-run seventh inning to advance past No. 8 seed Nebraska, 6-4, in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. After dismissing the Cornhuskers, Illinois will take on the top-seeded Wolverines — who haven’t won the tournament since 2015 — in Friday’s quarterfinal matchup. The Fighting Illini racked up 12 hits in their first-round victory: an offensive output in line with their identity.
Despite posting the conference’s ninth-best regular season record, Illinois boasts the Big Ten’s top offense. The Fighting Illini’s .321 team batting average and .521 slugging percentage lead the conference and their .400 on-base percentage is tied for second.
On Wednesday, Illinois’ catcher Bella Loya and outfielder Kiana Sherlund were each named first team All-Big Ten selections. Loya, who bats fifth in the team’s lineup, anchors the middle of the batting order with a .389 batting average and 48 RBI. She’s also launched 12 home runs, more than anybody in Michigan’s lineup. On the other hand, Sherlund’s .379 batting average and 11 stolen bases make her a multi-dimensional threat at the top of the order.
But if there’s a group of pitchers in this tournament capable of halting such an offense, it very well could be the Wolverines’ staff. In the last month, freshman right-hander Alex Storako has emerged as the perfect complement to 2018 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Meghan Beaubien. Storako has posted a 1.99 ERA while tallying 182 strikeouts across 134 innings, and Beaubien’s 2.06 ERA is a fitting encore to a stellar freshman campaign.
While the Fighting Illini offense has often kept games close, the same cannot be said of their pitching staff. Illinois’ 5.12 ERA against conference opponents ranks just tenth in the Big Ten, and it often negates the team’s offensive prowess.
In mid-April, Michigan swept the Fighting Illini during a three-game set in Champaign. The first game of the series came down to the wire, but freshman left fielder Lexie Blair plated the go-ahead run with a sacrifice fly in the top of the seventh inning.
The next day, the Wolverines clinched the series win with a memorable rally. Down 8-5 in the top of the seventh frame, sophomore first baseman Lou Allan and senior second baseman Faith Canfield each drove in a pair of runs to propel Michigan to a 9-8 win.
But the Wolverines dominated the series finale. They slugged six homers en route to a 16-5 victory, completing the sweep, but the tight contests proved Illinois could hang.
“We were inches, and I mean small inches, from being 1-2 in that series,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins.
In Friday’s quarterfinal, the Wolverines will gladly take every inch they can get, as they try to avoid a third consecutive Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal exit.