BLOOMINGTON — The past two NCAA Division III Super Regionals have taken Illinois Wesleyan’s softball team to unfamiliar surroundings against unfamiliar opponents.
The Titans prevailed both years, in 2016 at Decorah, Iowa (Luther College) and 2017 at Lexington, Ky. (Transylvania).
This time there are no unknowns.
No. 24-ranked IWU (34-10-1) will be at home for the best-of-3 Super Regional on Friday and Saturday, a reality that sent a smile across the face of senior outfielder Maggie Graham on Wednesday.
She and the Titans will take on No. 25 Wisconsin-Whitewater (28-11-1), a team they met April 23 in a regular-season doubleheader.
“I think it will be very, very cool,” Graham said of staying home. “I know they hosted (the Super Regional) here the year before I got here (2014), against Whitewater actually. It will definitely be fun and hopefully redemption.”
Whitewater won the 2014 Super Regional two games to one, denying IWU a trip to the NCAA Division III Championships. This year’s opener is at 2 p.m. Friday. Game 2 is at 1 p.m. Saturday, followed by a third game if necessary.
It will be the Titans’ third straight weekend at the IWU Softball Field, having won the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin Tournament two weeks ago and the Division III Regional last weekend.
“We definitely love our support and our fans,” IWU coach Tiffany Prager said. “We felt like that was an advantage for us the past couple of weekends. We’re happy to be back home.”
Graham, a .341 hitter with five home runs and 30 runs batted in, is part of a tournament-tested team she said has “great chemistry.”
“Not that the last two haven’t, but I just feel like we’re all really in it and we’re really comfortable with each other,” Graham said. “I know Whitewater has been through (postseason play) as well, but I think us going the previous two years (to the finals) is going to give us a little bit of an advantage.”
The Titans defeated visiting Whitewater, 3-0, in the opener of the April 23 doubleheader. Rain halted the second game after eight innings, tied 2-2.
Sophomore pitcher Brea Walker, a former Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley High School star, hurled a five-hitter in the first-game win, striking out six and walking none.
Prager’s pitching options include sophomore Ally Wiegand, a Tri-Valley grad and South Dakota transfer, along with Walker and senior Mackenzie Marquis. Wiegand is 16-3 with a 0.96 earned run average, Walker 10-4 with a 1.73 and Marquis 7-3 with a 3.55.
Walker hopes IWU can benefit from the earlier meetings with Whitewater.
“We can really look at being able to face those batters again and kind of predict what they’re going to do hopefully,” she said. “You never know what will happen, but we’ll try our best facing them again.
“It’s really cool that we’ve gotten to this point again and this team has worked so hard throughout the season to earn our way back here. Hopefully we’ll have a good weekend.”
IWU’s offense has been paced by sophomore shortstop and CCIW Player of the Year Sam Berghoff (.478, 10 homers, 58 RBI), center fielder Jillian Runyon (.359, 44 stolen bases), second baseman Shelby Fulk (.353, 5 HR, 30 RBI) and third baseman Julie Josten (.345, 7 HR, 26 RBI).
They’ll face a Whitewater pitching staff led by Julia Camardo (14-5, 1.97 ERA) and Bella Matthias (9-4, 2.45). Among the Warhawks’ top hitters is Mallory Klotz (.376, 4 HR, 33 RBI).
“A team’s development kind of changes throughout the course of the year,” Prager said. “They’re a tough team. They’re great historically. We know we’re going to get their best.”
The winner advances to the eight-team Division III National Championships on May 24-29 at Oklahoma City.
Wiegand, Berghoff and Runyon were first-team picks on the National Fastpitch Coaches Association all-Great Lakes Region squads released Wednesday.
Walker was a second-team choice and Fulk, a former El Paso-Gridley standout, made the third team.
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