CARBONDALE — Three weeks ago, SIU's softball team was clinging to seventh place in the Missouri Valley Conference standings.
The Salukis, who were picked second in the preseason poll after winning their first conference tournament in over 25 years last year, had dropped seven of nine games and fallen to 5-10 in the league. Then SIU's experience came to the surface a bit. Brianna Jones allowed two runs in her two starts. The senior right-hander (24-7, 2.13 ERA) struck out four and walked none in a Game 1 win over Northern Iowa, and tossed a five-inning, complete-game shutout in the regular-season finale. Freshman Jenny Jansen, not playing like a freshman any more, hit a walk-off home run in SIU's Game 1 victory.
Sophomores Susie Baranski and Maddy Vermejan, starters on last year's NCAA Tournament squad, both had two hits in the Salukis' 8-0 win in the regular-season finale.
SIU (29-21, 12-12 MVC) secured the third seed in this year's tournament, and awaits the winner of Thursday's game between sixth-seeded Northern Iowa (26-25, 11-14) and seventh-seeded Illinois State (20-32, 11-14) in Friday's quarterfinals. Win, and the Salukis get another shot at second-seeded Missouri State (32-19, 17-8) Friday night in the tournament semifinals.
Missouri State swept a doubleheader against SIU 7-6 and 7-4 in their only meetings this season.
Host Drake (41-10, 24-1) is the top seed in this year's eight-team event, which kicks off with two games Thursday night at Buel Field in Des Moines. Pitcher Nicole Newman, who was leading the nation in strikeouts before a season-ending elbow injury last February, has picked up right where she left off. The junior righty broke the Bulldogs school record for career strikeouts this season with her 768th, and enters the MVC tournament 19-3 with a 0.64 ERA.
The only team to beat the Bulldogs in MVC play this season — Loyola — didn't make the field. The Ramblers finished 23-27 overall and 9-16 in the MVC (ninth place).