CARBONDALE — As the NCAA regionals came and went during the Selection Show Sunday night, SIU senior pitcher Brianna Jones began drifting toward becoming that dental hygienist.
Norman, Oklahoma. Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Knoxville, Tennessee. Then, with the last regional up, "Southern Illinois" popped up on the screen to round out the four-team Evanston Regional. Jones, sitting towards the back of the Salukis' watch party at coach Kerri Blaylock's house, didn't even see it come on the television screen. But she heard it.
"Everybody stood up and started screamin'," Jones said. "I was already, like, sad, because, 'Well, this is it. I'm done.' And then I heard everyone screamin'."
SIU (33-13) drew an opening-round game against Louisville (33-21) from the ACC today at noon. Northwestern (43-10), the No. 171/8 team in the country, was the 16th seed in the field of 64 and will play Horizon League tournament champion Detroit Mercy (31-26) at 2:30 p.m. at Drysdale Field (1,000). The double-elimination regional continues through Sunday.
Jones, a senior right-hander from Manchester, Tennessee, has already set SIU's all-time wins record with 90 and counting. Her 165 career appearances and 835.1 innings are also school records for the 23-9 hurler with a 2.03 ERA and four shutouts on the season. Jones joined Amy Harre and Shelly Gibbs as the only Salukis in history to earn first team all-conference honors all four years, but was still thinking about a two-run home run that nearly ended her career last Friday.
Sammey Bunch, Northern Iowa's second baseman who won the MVC Player of the Year Award, won a 13-pitch at-bat in the Valley tournament with a two-run shot that proved to be the only runs in a 2-0 Panthers victory. Bunch hit three balls foul with home run distance, and after Jones threw a third ball, had to come to her with a runner already on first.
Now SIU's best pitcher gets another chance to write her own ending.
"For me, myself, I'm just glad that I didn't have to go out like we did in the conference tournament, and I think, for the whole team, we're just really excited to be going back (to the NCAAs)," Jones said. "For the people that were at Ole Miss, and for the newcomers, I think it's going to be really exciting for them."
SIU has all the elements of a regional contender, but has a lot to prove. The second seeds at the MVC tournament in Peoria, the Salukis got a double bye into the semifinals but failed to advance. They dropped both games at the Ole Miss Regional two years ago and fell in the championship game of the Valley tournament last year to Drake.
Jones, Claire Miller (8-3, 3.24 ERA) and Holly Marousek (2-1, 4.60 ERA) give SIU some variety in the circle. The Salukis have won at least one game in their NCAA regionals in every appearance but one (last year at Ole Miss) and are 4-3 against teams in the field this year. Their .403 on-base percentage is the tops in the Valley and tied for 19th in the country, and they will be tough in the field. SIU's fielding percentage (.981) is third in the nation, and five players competed in the NCAAs two years ago (Jones, catcher Katelyn Massa, outfielder Susie Baranski, second baseman Maddy Vermejan and infielder Kyleigh Decker).
"We feel that these are games that we can compete, and we can potentially win," Blaylock said. "We also talked about how we didn't handle (last Friday) very well. We were nervous. You could tell that there was something on the line, and that's not how we play. We're usually the underdog, loose, and I think that helps us."