CARBONDALE — By nature, coaches have to be prepared for anything.
So what did Kerri Blaylock do when she was honored before Saturday’s MVC doubleheader sweep of Valparaiso?
“I wasn’t expecting that,” she said, a trace of wonderment in her voice.
Before her SIU softball team kept their longshot hopes of a conference regular season title alive by beating Valpo 3-0 and 3-1, Blaylock was feted for passing legendary baseball coach Itchy Jones atop the school’s all-time wins list with No. 739 on Sunday at Indiana State.
The kicker? Jones, who like Blaylock is a Herrin native, came up from his retirement home in Florida for the occasion.
It wasn’t hard to tell that it hit Blaylock right in the feels. She went to school with Jones’ children at Herrin. She was teammates with his daughter in softball and remembered Saturday taking classes with his son.
“For him to come here and do that meant the world to me,” Blaylock said. “I’ve known him since I was a little kid. He’s always been so kind, willing to pass knowledge. I’ve always looked up to him.”
It wasn’t hard for veteran Salukis like Maddy Vermejan to deduce just how special the moment was for their leader.
“We only knew about it maybe five minutes before it happened,” Vermejan said. “It was emotional and pretty cool to see.”
While Blaylock was the star of the show prior to the first pitch, it was Vermejan who took her turn in the spotlight during the twinbill. The fifth-year second baseman scored her 163rd career run in the opener, breaking Mallory Duran-Sellers’ program record.
In the nightcap, Vermejan’s first inning steal of her second gave her 26 for the season, taking a 25-year old single-season mark away from Jami Koss and Cheryl Venorsky.
“The numbers are going to come if you play,” Vermejan said, “but the big thing is we got the Ws.”
Ws are what SIU (33-11, 15-7) requires if it is going to position itself to earn a third NCAA trip since 2017. That’s what they got twice, even though they played nearly the best possible version of a Valpo team that fell to 5-30 overall and 1-19 in the conference.
Looking nothing like a squad that’s lost 19 in a row, Valpo played errorless ball and got sound pitching from a staff that entered the day with a 6.78 earned run average. But the Salukis were able to outpitch it twice.
Sarah Harness didn’t have her best stuff or command in the opener, but found a different way to improve her conference-best record to 18-4. Her four strikeouts tied a career low for a start, but Harness fetched 11 outs via grounders and ceded just four hits.
Jenny Jansen was the offensive star in the opener, going 3 for 3 with a pair of doubles and two RBI. Katelyn Massa cashed in Jansen’s first double in the second with a one-out run-scoring single, and Jansen delivered runs in the third and fifth.
Massa, Maris Boelens and Elizabeth Warwick knocked in runs in the nightcap. But it was Vermejan who came up with the game’s key play, turning a potential hit into a rally-squashing double play.
With one out and runners at second and third in the fifth, Lauren Kehlenbrink’s looper into short right was snared on a great diving catch by Vermejan. Pinch-runner Alexis Johnson appeared to score from third.
SIU appealed that Johnson left third early and it was denied. But Blaylock got the umpires to convene and they reversed the third base umpire’s original call. A sacrifice fly became a 4-5 double play.
“When I jumped up, I saw (Johnson) more than halfway home, so I assumed she left early,” Vermejan said. “Then I heard someone say to check the runner at third. I was throwing there anyway to keep the other runner at second. And we got the call.”
Madi Eberle (9-5) came within one out of firing her team-high third shutout of the year before Peyton Moeder beat out an RBI infield hit in the seventh. Eberle scattered six hits, matching Harness’ 11 groundball outs.
Massa, Vermejan, Boelens, Meredith Wernig and Holly Marousek were honored after the nightcap. Wernig picked up the second start of her career in the second game, going 0 for 2 as the designated player. … The next time Vermejan reaches base via a hit, walk or being hit by a pitch will mark the 100th time it happens this year. … The teams conclude the series Sunday morning at 11.