NORMAL — A 26-year drought ended when Brittney Krodinger’s fly ball settled into Merri Anne Patterson’s glove in centerfield.
The lazy fly ball gave the SIU softball team a 4-3 win over Northern Iowa and the program’s first MVC tournament championship since 1991. This will mark SIU’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007.
“1991, that was my first year with the program, 26 years later …,” said SIU coach Kerri Blaylock. “We’ve been second as a program a lot over those 26 years. I can’t even describe it. I’m so impressed with the way our kids played, their fight, their heart.”
And, for seniors like tournament MVP Shaye Harre, the win over UNI extends her career.
“Great. Honestly, it’s just great,” Harre said. “I can’t think of any other word. I can’t think of any better way to go out.
The tournament bracket will be unveiled at 9 p.m. Sunday.
The Salukis spotted Northern Iowa a 1-0 lead, but scored all the runs they needed with a four-run, fourth-inning explosion.
UNI starter Jaclyn Spencer had handcuffed the Salukis through the first three innings, striking out seven. The fourth inning appeared to be harmless enough for UNI.
Maddy Vermejan got a one out single, but Haley Andrus grounded into a fielders choice for the second out. Savannah Fisher kept the inning alive with a perfectly placed bunt before Susie Baranski walked on a borderline 3-2 pitch.
Eyrika Brandenburg put the Salukis on top with a perfectly placed hit through the left side of the infield. The Panthers had employed an infield shift, but Brandenburg’s ground ball scooted by the diving Alicia Crivaro.
“They were shifted over a little bit because they were always pitching me outside,” Brandenburg said. “And, I couldn’t swing at another change-up. She was getting me really good on that. (Batting coach) Jen (Sewell) came up to me and said, ‘Hey, there is that gap and I think you can hit it.’ The first pitch I saw, I jumped it.”
Baranski scored on a wild pitch before Harre drilled a single up the middle to score Brandenburg.
“Usually, that’s where great teams work with two outs,” Harre said. “We just had to make sure we pushed runs across like we did.”
But, there were still 12 outs to get and UNI came from behind twice Friday in their semi-final win over Wichita State.
Starting pitcher Brianna Jones gave up a solo homer in the fifth and the first two hitters of the sixth reached base. Savanna Dover, who pitched six innings against Illinois State Friday night came in with runners on second and third and no one out.
“I think she’s (Jones) thrown a lot of innings this year and I could tell her velocity came down a little bit,” Blaylock said. “It was time to turn it over. She got us where we needed to be. We have a good staff and we’re going to use them.”
Dover yielded a sacrifice fly, but got the next two hitters to pop up on the infield. The junior, who earned her first career save, walked the lead-off hitter in the seventh, but eventually induced the dought-busting fly ball to Patterson.
In addition to timely hitting and Dover’s bullpen heroics, the SIU defense came up big. Sydney Jones made three stellar grabs of line drives at third base and Merri Anne Patterson pulled what appeared to be a home run back into play in the fourth.
“We’re No. 8 in the country in fielding percentage right now,” Blaylock said. “For a team that doesn’t strike out a lot of people, I think that’s really special. They work on it. We’ve done a great job in all aspects, but it’s the kids. They play the game.”