For most of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, it was the Lilli Backes show for the North Carolina softball team.
The sophomore pitcher was dominant on Friday in the weekend's opening contest against Minnesota. With the Tar Heels being unable to produce anything from the plate, Backes took over, striking out seven Golden Gophers on her way to a complete game shutout in the team's 1-0 victory. The next day, she tossed three more scoreless innings to help the Tar Heels beat Minnesota once again, 10-5.
Backes' first season in Chapel Hill had its ups and downs, as she compiled a 6.41 ERA and an 8-14 record. But if this weekend was any indication, she's ready to take the next step in 2023.
“While she’s not huge in stature, she’s got great movement,” head coach Donna J. Papa said. “Her demeanor on the mound, her mindset and just how she competes, I think will set her apart as she keeps working through the ACC.”
Even after surrendering four runs in the team's loss to Maryland on Sunday, Backes' ERA sits at just 2.00. She credits her strong start to UNC's pitching coach, Chelsey Dobbins, who returned to the staff after being on maternity leave last season.
The southpaw has found success thus far by working inside — pounding fastballs inside and then fooling batters with a riser or an offspeed pitch in the dirt. This strategy has worked wonders as she's already racked up 18 strikeouts through six appearances.
“I work inside with rise balls into hitters so I tend to hit them a lot,” Backes said. “But that’s also how I get people out.”
Backes has also been productive at escaping jams. On Friday, Backes left 11 Gophers stranded on the basepaths.
The sophomore credited her success to the defense behind her. The Tar Heels had one error in the field Friday night but came up clutch when needed. With a runner on third and two outs in the seventh, second basemen Abby Settlemyre fielded a tough short-hop grounder in the webbing of her glove and threw to first to deliver Backes the win.