CARBONDALE — It was a tough year for SIU athletics in 2017, as the football and baseball teams finished with losing records.
The men's basketball team never got stars Sean O'Brien, Leo Vincent and Mike Rodriguez to perform all on the same day and finished 17-16. The women's team had two emotional goodbyes to seniors Rishonda Napier, Kim Nebo and Carlie Corrigan, losing to Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament and in its first game in the Women's Basketball Invitational (WBI) in Milwaukee.
There was a changing of the guard on the volleyball team, and high jumper Kyle Landon ended a remarkable career with a disappointing performance. But, there were highs, led by our third-best sports story of the year in the region, the breakthrough by the Saluki softball team to the NCAA Tournament. Former triple jumper Gwen Berry, a Hall of Fame thrower, broke the American hammer throw record.
Here is a look at the top 10 SIU sports stories of 2017:
No. 1 – SIU softball wins MVC Tournament, reaches first NCAA since 2007
In her first year as SIU’s softball coach, Kerri Blaylock led her team to the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship. It took Blaylock 26 years to replicate that feat.
The Salukis, 33-24, defeated Northern Iowa 4-3 in the Valley title game to claim their first championship since 1991. They played in their first NCAA Tournament since 2007, losing to nationally-ranked Ole Miss and North Carolina.
A four-run fourth inning proved to be the difference for SIU in the MVC Tournament. Eyrika Brandenburg’s bases-loaded double chased home SIU’s first two runs. After Savannah Fisher scored on a wild pitch, Shaye Harre singled home what proved to be the winning run. Harre, the Salukis' all-time leader in RBIs and doubles, was named the tournament’s MVP.
Brianna Jones was the winning pitcher. Jones and Savannah Dover join 10 position players that could return for the Salukis this year.
No. 2 – 50th anniversary of 1967 NIT championship
The 1967 NIT basketball championship remains one of the shining moments in SIU sports history.
The region paid tribute to the 1967 team Feb. 11. Most of the players, including NBA stars Walt Frazier and Dick Garrett, returned to SIU for the tribute.
The Salukis defeated Marquette 71-56 in the championship game at New York’s fabled Madison Square Garden. SIU trailed by 11 points at the half, but scored 48 points in the second to overtake the Warriors. SIU defeated Rutgers 79-70 in the semifinal game.
The Salukis finished the season 24-2. They were the first “college” division team ever invited to the NIT.
No. 3 – Former hammer thrower Gwen Berry sets American record
Former Saluki thrower Gwen Berry shattered the U.S. women’s hammer record last May at the Ole Miss Classic. Berry threw the hammer 251-10, beating the mark set by Amanda Bingson in 2013.
It is just the last in a long list of honors for Berry, a member of the 2016 U.S. Olympic team and the SIU Hall of Fame.
A 2011 SIU graduate, Berry was an All-American in the hammer, shot put and weight throw while at SIU. She was a four-time MVC champion. Berry was also a three-time member of the MVC scholar-athlete team.
She was originally recruited as a triple jumper.
No. 4 – SIU men's basketball team finishes 17-16, misses postseason for 9th straight year
The 2016-17 season was one of missed opportunities, as the Salukis lost at Minnesota even though the Golden Gophers competed without shot blocker Reggie Lynch, and fell at UNLV even though it played without one of its main players.
SIU dropped its conference opener at Bradley and never won more than three games in a row the rest of the season. Armon Fletcher was one of the league's most improved players as a sophomore, and forward Thik Bol made the league's all-defensive team after blocking 76 shots, the third-most in school history.
The Salukis beat Loyola for the third time in the MVC Tournament but allowed Illinois State to make 13 3-pointers on 29 attempts in a semifinal loss.
No. 5 – SIU women play in second straight WBI
Like the men's team, the women's team struggled to play consistently in 2016-17. The Salukis finished 16-15 as point guard Rishonda Napier became the program's all-time leader in 3-point field goals, with 277. Her 277 triples were the second-most in Valley history.
SIU earned its third straight winning record and second straight postseason appearance after going nine years without a single one.
No. 6 – Football goes 4-7 for second straight year
SIU showed a lot of improvement in coach Nick Hill's second year even though it had the same record as 2016.
The Salukis opened with wins over Mississippi Valley State and Southeast Missouri State and battled Memphis, an FBS opponent, to the end in a 44-31 loss. SIU opened conference play with a tough home loss to nationally-ranked Northern Iowa and dropped its last four games after starting quarterback Sam Straub broke a bone in his wrist. SIU played several underclassmen and gave up fewer big plays on defense.
Punter Lane Reazin was named first team all-conference, and offensive tackle Austin Olsen and safety Jeremy Chinn were named to the second team. Five players, including breakout star Anthony Knighton, who set the freshman sacks record with 6.5 and tackles for loss record with 11, were honorable mention.
No. 7 – Ingram leaves volleyball team for UIC
Justin Ingram, a former MVC coach of the year who led SIU to the NCAA Tournament in 2015, left SIU for Illinois-Chicago after the 2016 season. Ingram went 101-59 (.631) in five seasons after coming over from Arkansas State. He led the Salukis to a 60-30 mark in conference play and four 20-win seasons.
Kari Thompson, the head coach at North Dakota State, was hired as his replacement. SIU went 6-23 overall and 5-13 in MVC play. Senior outside hitter Andrea Estrada, who finished with over 1,300 digs and kills, and outside hitter Patience Brown were second team all-conference picks.
No. 8 – Jones retires after 17 years as Saluki administrator
Kathy Jones, SIU's senior woman administrator since 2000, announced her retirement in 2017. She helped the Salukis through their golden age in the early 2000s and oversaw compliance and student services units, including academic advising, athletic training and the strength and conditioning program.
"I always tried to be an advocate for the student-athletes, and making sure that we're taking care of them, because without them, we don't have an enterprise," Jones said. "I tried to stand for integrity and doing the right thing. You hope you make a mark."
No. 9 – Bol done for 2017-18
Bol, SIU's top returning rebounder and shot blocker from last season, is officially done for the 2017-18 season, men's basketball coach Barry Hinson said Sunday.
Bol suffered a knee injury in October and had it surgically repaired in November. He rehabbed for weeks and practiced for the first time this season on Friday and Saturday. Hinson said Bol was expected to play against Drake on Sunday, which would have given the Salukis almost their entire team for the first time this season, but after the game, Hinson said his knee had flared up worse than the medical staff thought it would and that they were shutting him down.
SIU lost to Drake, 70-67, to fall to 9-5 overall and 1-1 in the MVC.
No. 10 – Landon ends remarkable career
Kyle Landon, one of the most decorated track and field athlete in SIU and Valley history, ended his collegiate career at the 2017 NCAA outdoor championships. He struggled to clear the second bar and finished tied for 15th in his final competition. Landon's five All-American honors rank among the school's leaders, and he became the only high jumper in league history to win eight titles.
Landon was a nine-time MVC champion and SIU's only three-time academic All-American in track and field.