Softball starts tourney against Illinois

BY KYLE MANN | MAY 08, 2014 5:00 AM

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The Iowa softball team loaded the bus on Wednesday and hit the road for Evanston, Ill., where the 8-seeded Hawkeyes will take on No. 9 seed Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament today.

At 16-29-1 overall and 9-14 in Big Ten play, Iowa didn’t exactly light the world on fire in the regular season, but it landed a relatively favorable matchup to start the postseason. The Illini finished 7-16 in conference play and waited until the last weekend of the season to grab their first series victory.

Iowa head coach Marla Looper, however, knows better than to underestimate an opponent.

“Just kind of like our record does, I don’t think their record shows you how good they are,” she said. “They’re not a team you can just walk on the field and say, ‘Oh, we’re a higher seed; we’re better than them.’ They’re a quality ball club.”

The Hawks know firsthand that they match up competitively with Illinois. In March, Iowa took two of three from Illinois, but that included a 4-3 victory in nine innings as well as a 4-3 loss in eight. The deciding game was a 10-7 victory for the Hawkeyes.

“They’re a scrappy team,” Looper said. “We had a battle the whole weekend we were there. We’ve just got to take care of us and what we do well.”

What they will look to continue to do is ride their hot bats. The Hawkeyes in recent weeks have been hitting the cover off the ball, with solid contributions from all over.

Senior Kayla Massey and sophomores Erin Erickson and Holly Hoffman have been more dialed-in recently, but the offense for the Hawkeyes is fueled by senior Brianna Luna and junior Megan Blank.

Blank, just named to her third-straight first-team All-Big Ten team, finished the season batting .366 with 5 home runs and 25 RBIs, and she struck out only 12 times in 131 at-bats. She had Illinois figured out in their first meeting: She was 4-for-6 with 4 RBIs and 2 runs in Iowa’s two wins.

Luna batted .305, and the senior said the Hawkeyes need to remain focused at the plate as they enter the win-or-go-home portion of the season.

“I try to have a good approach at the plate and know what we need to do,” Luna said, echoing Looper’s sentiments.

As far as what wisdom Luna has to share with the team regarding tournament play, it should really be no different than any other game.

Indeed, concentration at the plate will be key in this game; Illinois will likely throw reigning Big Ten Freshman and Pitcher of the Week Brandi Needham.

She has been playing well lately, but 181 hits in 180 innings pitched and 17 home runs allowed in 35 appearances suggests that there will be some opportunities for the good guys.

There’s a consensus in the Hawkeye dugout: This game will come down to their ability to execute the little things.

“We’ve been hitting well the last few weeks; it’s just going to be about getting bunts down, getting runners over, and getting that key hit,” Blank said.

Looper agrees.

“If we can eliminate the little mistakes, we’re sitting in a real good position,” she said. “We’re going to have to work for it, but this is what we’ve been working for all year long. It’s sitting right there for us; we just have to grab it.”

The winner of this No. 8 vs. No. 9 game will face top-seeded Michigan on Friday. 

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