Arizona HR Parade Powers Through Illini in NCAA Softball Regional Opener

Arizona hits four home runs in a 8-3 victory over Illinois in the opening game of the 2022 NCAA Columbia Regional.

By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Staff Writer

May 20, 2022

(Cover file photo courtesy Illinois Athletics)

Illinois will need to win two softball games on Saturday in the 2022 NCAA Columbia Regional and keep its season alive.

Following a 8-3 loss to Arizona in the opening round game on Friday afternoon, Illinois needs to win elimination games against Missouri State and the winner of the Missouri/Arizona game to advance to the regional final.

Arizona (34-20) showcased its power at the plate to easily erase an early Illini and score eight consecutive runs in the overwhelming victory. The Wildcats, which led the Pac-12 Conference this season in batting average (.329), RBI (317), hits (446), and runs scored (334) while also ranking ninth nationally in home runs (86), home runs per game (1.62) and slugging percentage (.572), hit four home runs and three off Illinois ace right-handed pitcher Sydney Sickels on their way to the program’s eighth consecutive win in a regional opening game.

“I’m just proud of the adjustments we’ve made throughout this game,” Arizona head coach Caitlin Lowe said in the in-game interview during the ESPN-Plus broadcast. “After the first time through the lineup, they came up knowing exactly what they wanted to hit.”

Arizona has 24 home runs in the last 11 games, with Allie Skaggs hitting seven, Jasmine Perezchica with five and All-Pac 12 freshman selection Paige Dimler with four. Sharlize Palacios and Skaggs hit back-to-back home runs in the third inning to give the Wildcats the lead for the rest of the afternoon.

Arizona was making its 35th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament on Friday, which represents the longest streak in college softball history.

The Wildcats were 3 of 7 on the day with runners in scoring position and had five two-out RBIs throughout the day. All three of Illinois’ pitchers who entered the circle Friday gave up a run and an extra-base hit.

After struggling in the opening inning, fifth-year senior Hanah Bowen settled down to pick up the complete game victory in a 129-pitch performance. Bowen entered the game with a career ERA in the circle of 2.06 and finished Friday with eight strikeouts.

Sickels (12-9), who was a second team All-Big Ten Conference selection, gave up four runs on four hits before being pulled following just 43 pitches over 2 ⅔ innings. Sickels would return to limit the Arizona offense in a scoreless seventh inning. The Illini, which haven’t won an NCAA Regional opening game since 2017, have lost five of its last seven games since the calendar flipped to May.

Illinois sophomore shortstop Megan Ward had a three-hit day and was the second run to score in the opening inning from a two-RBI double off the RCF wall by junior outfielder Kelly Ryono to give the Illini an early lead. Ryono had three RBIs throughout the day. Illinois will play Missouri State in the losers bracket elimination game at 4 p.m. CST after the Bears lost 3-1 to No. 15 seed and host Missouri in the opening game of the regional.

Missouri State (27-18) is making their seventh NCAA tournament appearance and are coming off an MVC Tournament championship, securing the conference's automatic bid into the tournament. It is their first appearance in the tournament since 2011.

If Illinois defeats Missouri State, the Illini will play the loser of the Arizona/Missouri game (to be played at 1:30 p.m.) to advance to Game 1 of the regional final round expected to start at 3 p.m. on Sunday.

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