CARBONDALE — The SIU softball team hit like champions in the practices leading up to today’s opening day of the State Farm Missouri Valley Conference Softball Championship.
Time will tell if they become one.
“I honestly think it’s just trying to play well,” said SIU coach Kerri Blaylock. “Trying to play mistake-free, trying to play loose, all those kinds of things help.”
The Salukis (39-14, 16-10 MVC) are the No. 4 seed in an upper bracket that includes the regular-season conference champion (Northern Iowa), the regular-season batting champion (Creighton) and an Evansville team that run-ruled SIU, 9-0, a little more than two weeks ago.
“I think we do real well when we’ve seen everyone,” said SIU senior outfielder Mallory Duran-Sellers, one of three Salukis playing in the final conference tournament of their careers. “We’ve seen everyone’s pitching, we’ve seen everyone’s offense, so we know what to expect.”
SIU is mired in a 20-year conference title drought, one of four league teams to have never won it all as a member of the MVC. The Salukis’ last tournament championship came in 1991 as a member of the Gateway Conference.
The Salukis will await the winner of No. 5 Creighton (27-24-1, 15-11) and No. 8 Evansville (18-36, 8-19) at 4:05 p.m. today in the tournament quarterfinals. The victor of SIU’s game gets Northern Iowa (38-15, 21-4) at 12:05 p.m. Friday.
Northern Iowa, boasting the league’s best pitcher in sophomore Jamie Fisher (20-3, 1.34 ERA) will try to become the first regular-season champion since 2007, and third overall, to win the conference tournament.
“For the No. 1 and No. 2 seed, there could be an argument that you sit for a day and you don’t get to play,” Blaylock said on the difficulties of winning the tournament as a high seed. “It could be that more of the pressure is on the No. 1 or No. 2 seed, but I personally feel that, in the past, somebody gets hot and just keeps on rolling.”
Illinois State (33-21, 18-8) earned the No. 2 seed and will await the winner of No. 3 Drake (28-27, 17-10) and No. 7 Bradley (21-29, 11-5)/No. 6 Missouri State (24-25, 12-14) at 2:35 p.m. Friday.
SIU has hosted the tournament three times before in 1990, 2004 and 2008. The Salukis lost in the semifinals in 1990, finished runner-up to Creighton in 2004 and ended in a tie for fifth in 2008.
The Salukis have three players, Duran-Sellers, Haley Gorman and Allie VadeBoncouer, among the league’s leaders. Duran-Sellers is third in batting average (.370) and hits (60), fourth in doubles (12) and leads the league in runs scored (61).
Gorman is fifth in hits (57) and second in doubles (13), while VadeBoncouer is the MVC’s leader in RBIs with 48.
“I’m pretty happy with them,” said SIU freshman pitcher Katie Bertelsen on her team’s chances. “We just have to stay focused and play and I think we can come out and do well.”
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