CARBONDALE — If momentum is anything in softball, SIU's historic squad may be around the Oxford (Mississippi) Regional a bit longer than some expect.
The Salukis (33-22) have won six straight games and 11 of their last 12 entering Friday night's NCAA regional against host No. 13 Mississippi (40-18). The first team in coach Kerri Blaylock's tenure to receive an automatic bid into the four-team bracket are 0-6 against NCAA Tournament teams this season, but don't lack for confidence.
"I think we started playing our best ball toward the end of the year, and it showed in the conference tournament," said SIU first baseman Shaye Harre, who was the MVP of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. "Keep making big plays, and keep hustling."
The Salukis topped Missouri State, host Illinois State and co-league champ Northern Iowa to win the Valley tournament. With three pitchers that could see time, six players with 20 or more RBIs and four upperclassmen in their lineup, SIU can play a lot of different ways. The Salukis scored six runs in one inning in the win over the Lady Bears, shut out Illinois State 2-0 and turned away the Panthers at every corner to earn the 11th NCAA Tournament appearance in school history.
"I feel like it's prepared us the most for what we're going to be facing," SIU outfielder Merri Anne Patterson said. "The two pitchers we faced in the championship game were high-quality pitchers, and I feel like that's what we're gonna be facing with Ole Miss."
Mississippi coach Mike Smith expects a lot of action in Friday's second game. North Carolina (38-19) and Arizona State (30-20) square off at 6 p.m. in the opener.
"They're a very aggressive hitting team. They've got good pitching," Smith said. "They do some action stuff. They like to bunt, hit and run. From a defensive standpoint you just have to be on your toes and expect those things to happen. It's not like we don't have teams like that in the SEC. I feel like we've been battle-tested."
The Rebels, who made their first NCAA Tournament appearance ever last season, beat three top-25 teams in a row to win the Southeastern Conference tournament and punch their second ticket. Junior pitcher Kaitlin Lee, a junior college All-American last year at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, was the SEC tournament MVP after going 4-0 with a 0.75 ERA.
Lee (20-10, 1.78 ERA) is three wins from tying Mississippi's single-season record and has thrown nine straight complete games. Look for SIU to get its chances Friday night — Lee has allowed 191 hits in 220 innings, with 106 strikeouts and 31 walks. The Salukis' fate could fall with how well they strike when the iron is hot.
"She doesn't have a ton of strikeouts," Blaylock said. "She gives up almost a hit an inning, but to compete in the SEC and do what she's done, it's all about guts and heart."
Smith said Lee even competes off the field.
"That kid wants the ball all the time. She competes even in the dugout when players are just messing around," he said. "She's just a fiery individual that has a passion for the game, a passion for her teammates, and a passion for her team."
SIU is expected to start sophomore righty Brianna Jones (18-12, 2.18 ERA). Junior Savanna Dover (7-3, 2.87 ERA) and sophomore Nicole Doyle (8-7, 3.74 ERA) may also see action this weekend during the double-elimination regional.
The Salukis will play either North Carolina or Arizona State on Saturday at either 1:30 p.m. or 4 p.m., depending on Friday's results.