OXFORD, Miss. — Standing in the middle of an NCAA softball tournament awakening, former Saluki Mary Jo Firnbach looked back at her team's 1991 playoff run for a moment Saturday.
Just a few feet from the field at the Ole Miss Softball Complex, which saw sold-out crowds of more than 1,600 fans tune in to see the 13th-ranked Rebels this weekend, Firnbach went back to SIU's run to the Iowa City Regional 26 years ago. There was no ESPN3, no play-by-play radio with the teams, and definitely not a thousand fans in the stands.
"The stadiums are different. The media is different. The TV coverage is different," said Firnbach, now the associate head coach at regional participant North Carolina. "It's just where it should be now. It's exciting to see where softball is, and you can see every game on TV now, or pull it up on your computer. Back then it was just different, because we were playing in a pseudo-stadium, in a different conference, so it just had a different feel to it. But to us it was just how it was."
The Salukis won the Gateway Collegiate Athletic Conference in 1991 with a 14-0 record and captured the league tournament title with a win over Illinois State. SIU beat Drake, Wichita State and the Redbirds to reach the finals, then rebounded from a 5-3 loss to win 4-1 and punch its first ticket to the NCAA Tournament in 13 years.
The Salukis won in six innings or less six times and were undefeated in extra innings, beating Indiana State 3-2 in eight innings and Wichita State 4-3 in eight.
"We had a lot of bad hair and polyester uniforms, but it was one of the best times of my life," said Firnbach, a two-time academic All-American that was the team's MVP in 1990 with Shelly Gibbs. "I really enjoyed it, and what I remember about that team was we were pretty gritty, but also had a lot of fun doing it. We had pitching, we had a little hitting, and we had defense, and it was a good time."
SIU lost both games at the regional, 2-0 to Missouri and 2-0 to the host Hawkeyes to finish 42-7.
The Salukis closed their 33-24 season Saturday with a 4-0 loss to the Tar Heels and Firnbach. She and SIU coach Kerri Blaylock continue to be close.
Firnbach, who was inducted into the Saluki Hall of Fame in 1996, joined North Carolina in 2014. Prior to that, she helped Texas A&M reach eight NCAA Tournaments as an assistant coach. The Aggies made two trips to the College World Series and reached the final in 2008. Before going to Texas, the Illinois native helped create the softball program in Syracuse before serving as its head coach from 2000-06.
North Carolina advanced to Sunday's regional final against No. 13 Mississippi after taking down No. 22 Arizona State 3-2 in the late game Saturday. The Tar Heels received an at-large bid to the tournament after falling to Florida State in the finals of the ACC tournament.