There was the innocence of playing in postseason for the first time a year ago for everyone on the Illinois softball roster. That appearance in the NCAA tournament was Illinois' first since 2004. Illinois failed to win a game in the Columbia (Mo.) Regional, losing to Missouri and DePaul by a combined score of 11-1 in the double-elimination format. The quick exit served as motivation this season, as Illinois posted a 43-6 record overall and a 16-2 mark to finish tied for second in the Big Ten Conference race this spring.

There was the innocence of playing in postseason for the first time a year ago for everyone on the Illinois softball roster. That appearance in the NCAA tournament was Illinois' first since 2004.


Illinois failed to win a game in the Columbia (Mo.) Regional, losing to Missouri and DePaul by a combined score of 11-1 in the double-elimination format. The quick exit served as motivation this season, as Illinois posted a 43-6 record overall and a 16-2 mark to finish tied for second in the Big Ten Conference race this spring.


The Illini return to Columbia, Mo., this weekend for regional play, where Missouri (46-11) is the ninth seed in the 64-team NCAA bracket. DePaul (38-16) and Creighton (37-21) are also in the four-team, double-elimination regional field.


"This team really gets it,” Illinois coach Terri Sullivan said. "They know how hard it is to succeed at this level -- the effort, enthusiasm and not wavering in their togetherness. They really get it. That's exciting.


"Maybe what happened (in regional play a year ago) allowed them to have that chip on their shoulder, setting their sites on what they needed to do.”


Illinois faces DePaul in the first game Friday. The Blue Demons defeated Illinois 3-2 on May 6. It's the only loss by the Illini in the last 17 games.


Starting pitcher Monica Perry gave up all three runs in the loss. Perry is considered the staff's ace with a 23-5 record and a 2.30 ERA. But freshman Pepper Gay relieved Perry against DePaul and didn't give up a run.


Getting stronger as the season entered crunch time, Gay is 16-1 with a 1.53 ERA. She not only gives the Illini pitching depth, Gay also made Sullivan make a decision on the starter in the postseason opener.


"I'm not sure who will start Friday,” Sullivan said, chuckling. "No really. I would tell you if I knew. I'll probably make that decision in a couple days.”


Illinois hoped to be one of 16 hosts in regional play for the first time. Big Ten champ Michigan and Ohio State, the team that tied Illinois for second place, earned the right to host regionals. Sullivan acknowledged past history sometimes plays a role in determining NCAA sites and pairings.


If so, Illinois can make a statement by showing improvement and taking a step forward. Illinois was a Sweet 16 team in 2004. 


Hope Howell, an outfielder from Lithonia, Ga., is the only senior starter in the Illinois lineup. Howell went 3-for-3 with a homer and 4 RBIs in the regular-season finale Saturday in the 10-0 win over Minnesota and earned Big Ten player of the week. Howell (.416, 6 homers, 38 RBIs), junior second baseman Danielle Zymkowitz (.421, 55 runs) and sophomore first baseman Meredith Hackett (.418, 15 homers, 55 RBIs) lead in the Illini in hitting.


BASKETBALL: When Illinois takes a hard look at former Thornton Fractional North power forward Kyle Cain, the Illini want what they wanted by signing Rodney Alexander and Dominique Keller. The scholarship would be worth some toughness, rebounding, defense and work ethic as a role player.


Cain committed to Detroit out of high school but played at New Hampton (N.H.) Prep and signed with Rhode Island. He received his release this spring, then found a surprising amount of interest from high major programs. Cain visited Illinois last week, and he will make more visits before deciding.


West Virginia, Alabama and Arizona State are also among his finalists.


"He's taking a couple more visits for sure,'' said Chicago-based recruiting analyst Joe Henricksen, of City/Suburban Hoops Report. "He was blown away by the whole process and the magnitude of interest. He was really excited initially and intrigued by Illinois.”


But it comes down to playing time. With Mike Davis, Tyler Griffey and Bill Cole returning and Jereme Richmond already committed (plus Mike Tisdale and Meyers Leonard at center), playing time might be an issue.


"All these kids want to come and contribute as a freshman,” Henricksen said. "Illinois is right in the mix. The makeup of the roster could have an impact.”


IN OTHER NEWS: The Illinois baseball team (24-24, 9-12) likely needs to sweep a three-game series at Indiana on Thursday through Saturday to earn a berth in the six-team Big Ten Tournament. Illinois lost five of its seven Big Ten series, including dropping two of three to Purdue over the weekend. ... Illinois track stars Angela Bizzari and Andrew Riley each won two titles at the Big Ten Conference meet. Bizzari, a three-time NCAA champ, won the 1,500 and the 5,000 to push her conference total to five championships. Riley won the 100 and the 110 high hurdles. He now has four Big Ten titles. The Illini women finished fifth and the men were sixth. … Illinois plays Thursday through Saturday in the NCAA men's golf regional in Bremerton, Wash. The top five teams qualify for the NCAA Championships, set for June 1 to 5 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Illinois is seeking its third consecutive berth in the NCAA meet. The Illini already won back-to-back Big Ten Conference titles for the first time since 1940-41.


John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.