CARBONDALE — The SIU softball team's prayers were answered Sunday, when the Salukis were picked as one of the last four teams into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid.
SIU (33-13) will play Louisville (33-21) at the Evanston Regional on Friday at noon, followed by No. 16 seed Northwestern (43-10) against Detroit Mercy (31-26) at 2:30 p.m. Both games are scheduled to air on ESPN3.
The Salukis made the NCAA Tournament for the second time in the last three years, but Sunday was stressful. SIU, the second seed at the Missouri Valley Conference tournament that received a double-bye into the semifinals, lost to Northern Iowa on Friday, 2-0. With an RPI of 42 entering the tournament, SIU had three top-50 wins and a couple of top-100 wins, but also losses to the Panthers and Loyola. SIU had two top-25 wins, one over Mississippi State, which fell out of the top-25 poll, and one over No. 25 Drake during the regular season, and victories against at least two teams in the field of 64, North Dakota State and the Bulldogs.
When Southern Illinois came on the screen during the NCAA Selection Show on ESPN2, it was the last team announced. The Salukis watched the show at coach Kerri Blaylock's house because they weren't sure if they would have gotten in.
"We were the last person on the screen. Literally the last screen," Blaylock said. "We went nuts. They saw it. They knew we were the last one. This is a driveable regional. This could be a shot for us, so when it went up, a lot of crying. A lot of excitement, and somebody said 'I think we were one of the last ones in,' and somebody else said 'Who cares, we got in.'"
The Salukis had the third-best fielding percentage in the country entering the MVC tournament and had six all-conference honorees. Catcher Katelyn Massa was the MVC defensive player of the year, and freshman shortstop Ashley Wood was the Valley's freshman of the year. Senior pitcher Brianna Jones set the program record for pitching wins, appearances and innings pitched, and will now get at least one more start in a Saluki uniform, if not two. SIU will play either Northwestern or Detroit Mercy on Saturday, depending on how it does Friday.
Drake beat Northern Iowa 4-1 in the MVC tournament championship Saturday and had an RPI in the low 20s entering the tournament, so the Bulldogs were expected to make the NCAA Tournament with or without a victory in Peoria on Saturday. SIU won its way into the field of 64 in 2017 when it won the Valley tournament for the first time since 1991.
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Louisville was also an at-large bid from the ACC, and finished the season on a four-game losing streak. Three Cardinals were named all-conference, senior third baseman Sidney Melton (first team all-conference), freshmen outfielder Charley Butler and freshman catcher Rebecca Chung (All-Freshman Team). Melton hit .388 with 17 runs, 13 RBIs and 18 stolen bases during league play. Butler led the team with a .407 average in 18 conference games. Chung hit .263 against league opponents and set a school record after catching four baserunners attempting to steal in one game against Florida State.
Detroit Mercy, the champion of the Horizon League tournament, is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance.
Northwestern, ranked 18th in the country in the latest USA Today/NFCA coaches top-25 poll, went 13-1 at home this season. The Wildcats beat Louisville three times during the regular season and went 5-6 against top-25 teams. They beat Loyola 5-1 and Drake 2-1 on a neutral field.
Tickets to the Evanston Regional are $8 a day for adults and $6 a day for youth (17 and under). They are available online at nusports.com.
SIU went to Evanston for its NCAA regional in 2006, losing to the host Wildcats 4-0 in the opener. The Salukis beat UC Santa Barbara 2-1 and lost 5-4 to Notre Dame. They are 9-14 in seven appearances. Among current teams in the Valley, only Illinois State (12-18 in nine appearances) has more NCAA Tournament wins than SIU.
Drake (42-14) takes on Georgia (40-17) in the Minneapolis Regional this week. Seventh-seeded Minnesota (41-12) plays North Dakota State (42-14) in another first-round game.
Team pairings were determined by geographic proximity, with the exception that teams from the same conference were not paired during regional competition. The Southeastern Conference led all leagues with 13 teams selected to the championship tournament. The Big Ten Conference placed six teams in the tournament.