With 2017 in the rearview mirror, it's time to look ahead, and to try to be positive in 2018.

The two teams that were pretty successful last year, the SIU softball and women's basketball teams, return some good players and have made some great additions. The Salukis' two major sports, men's basketball and football, have a lot to be excited about.

Here are five reasons to be excited about Saluki athletics in 2018:

No. 1 — SIU has enough to challenge for Valley hoops title

Losing Thik Bol for the season was a hit, not only because of his talent but because the team went from having almost everybody healthy and available for the first time all year to another setback. But, all is not lost.

Kavion Pippen gives SIU something not anyone else in the Valley has, a back-to-the-basket post player that can catch anything and finish around the basket. The 6-foot-10, 240-pound center rebounds well and has blocked 28 shots in 15 games. 

The Salukis' fortunes still rest with Armon Fletcher, Sean Lloyd, Marcus Bartley and Aaron Cook. All four - fingers crossed - should be ready to go against Evansville Wednesday. SIU can be a great defensive team with those four, and that's the only way it's going to make a run at the Valley championship.

No. 2 — Year 3 of the Nick Hill era

Nick Hill signed 16 pretty impressive resumes for the upcoming football season, and returns a solid starting quarterback in Sam Straub. 

Year 3 of the Hill era should be exciting. The Salukis will get a bye week, something they didn't in 2017, return four starters on the defensive line and have several standout players back. Hill and his staff always recruits freshmen that can play right away, and they are expected to announce a few FBS transfers later this month.

SIU didn't have a lot of holes to fill (cornerback, backup quarterback). Look for an improved football team this year. 

No. 3 — SIU softball returns several position players, 2 pitchers

Brianna Jones (18-13, 2.40 ERA) is back. That, alone, is enough reason to be excited for SIU's upcoming softball season, but the Salukis return plenty around her. Savanna Dover (7-4) was an effective pitcher, and senior Savannah Fisher was one of the team's top defensive players.

Catcher/infielder Sydney Jones had more home runs last season (nine) than Shaye Harre (eight), and SIU also returns three of its top-four hitters in Eryika Brandenburg (.309, 23 RBIs), Katelyn Massa (.297, 22 RBIs) and Maddy Vermejan (.284). 

Another NCAA Tournament run could be within reach.

No. 4 — Saluki women off to 2-0 MVC start

The SIU women (7-6, 2-0) are back home this week after road wins at Evansville and Indiana State to open conference play. Freshmen Abby Brockmeyer (16 points, eight rebounds) and Makenzie Silvey (13 points) were the Salukis' top scorers in their big win at Indiana State.

SIU has some experience, some athleticism in the frontcourt, and some perimeter shooting. If the Salukis can make some headway on defense against two of the top teams in the Valley, they could be looking at a 3-1 or 4-0 conference mark.

No. 5 — Staffing changes in the department

As the university continues to change under the new chancellor, the athletic department is debating some changes, as well. 

With the retirement of Kathy Jones, the senior woman administrator since 2000, SIU athletic director Tommy Bell is looking at promoting Cristina Pisoni to that position. Pisoni, a former Saluki softball player, is currently the director of ticketing and the director of the Saluki Athletic Scholarship Fund (SASF), the department's chief fundraising arm.

Bell does not want her to do all three, and might look at hiring either another fundraiser or another director of ticketing. SIU is also looking at moving the Hall of Fame festivities to Homecoming weekend, where the honorees can ride in the parade. 

October is typically one of my busiest months of the year, because basketball and football run at the same time, but I'll take it. Anything to further honor Hall of Fame inductees, and give some guys that can't get away in February a chance to join the crew, are all pluses in my book. 

TODD HEFFERMAN covers SIU athletics for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at todd.hefferman@thesouthern.com, 618-351-5087 or on Twitter at @THefferman.