Long before Northwestern left fielder Morgan Nelson squeezed the last out of SIU's NCAA regional game early Sunday morning, the Saluki softball team accomplished big things.
With only two seniors, SIU tied the school record for on-base percentage (.402) and hit .303 for the season, the second-best mark in school history. The Salukis' .458 slugging percentage was also the second best in school history, and their fielding percentage broke a school record (.979) with only one upperclassman regular (junior Kyleigh Decker).
The biggest thing the Salukis accomplished this year? They proved 2017 wasn't a fluke, and got back into the national vernacular.
"This is a special team," said SIU coach Kerri Blaylock, who has been a part of a lot of special teams. "We had great pitching from Bri (Jones) to Claire (Miller) to Holly (Marousek). The offense was good and we were ranked third in the country in defense. It's just a special team, and I'm old enough to know that specialness only comes around every so often."
SIU (34-15) never made excuses. After a tough loss to Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, in which the Salukis played tight, they admitted they had nerves. Jones, the program's all-time wins leader, admitted it was not her best outing, even though her lone mistake was a two-run home run to the league's player of the year, Sammey Bunch.
That home run came on a 13-pitch at-bat. Bunch hit three balls with home run distance directly foul. After Jones threw her third ball of the at-bat, making the count full, she had to come to Bunch with a runner on first. Bunch hit it over the left field wall.
SIU stranded 12 base runners against Louisville in its first loss at the NCAA Tournament's Evanston Regional, but rallied to beat Detroit 2-1 in walk-off fashion. A bases-loaded walk forced in the Titans' lone run in the third inning, but the Salukis rallied in the fifth. Maddy Vermejan, the 2018 MVC defensive player of the year and one of eight position starters that could return next year for SIU, stole third when Detroit's pitcher failed to pay attention to her.
Jenny Jansen, a sophomore outfielder/infielder and SIU's best player at the regional, manufactured the Salukis' first run when she tried to steal second. Jansen faked as if she was going, and when Detroit's catcher threw down to second base, Vermejan came home without a throw. Jansen stayed in a rundown in between first and second long enough to make sure the run counted.
Jones threw up four straight zeroes to give SIU a chance to win the game in the end. Maris Boelens' RBI single captured the first NCAA Tournament win for the Salukis since 2007.
"We needed it," Blaylock said. "Getting here just wasn't enough. We wanted to prove we belonged."
SIU's battle with No. 17/18 Northwestern proved it did belong. The Salukis cut a 4-0 deficit to 4-1 before the Wildcats' pitcher, Kenna Wilkey, hit a grand slam in the top of the seventh inning. SIU got at least one base runner in all seven innings, but couldn't get the timely hit against the No. 16 seed of the field of 64.
Northwestern won 8-1, and beat Louisville twice on Sunday to win the regional.