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CARBONDALE — It was a promising start. Then an agonizing finish. And a bitter loss, followed by a marathon meeting.

Ahead 3-1 entering the sixth inning Saturday, the SIU softball team lost the lead and another game as Indiana State rallied for a 5-3 Missouri Valley Conference win at Charlotte West Stadium.

No less than 90 seconds after Katelyn Massa’s screaming liner with the tying runs on base found shortstop Mallory Marsicek’s glove to end the game, Salukis coach Kerri Blaylock convened what looked like the standard postgame chat with her team in left field.

Only it went on for 25 minutes. Players and assistant coaches chimed in, some looking emotional, after SIU (22-17, 5-8) lost for the fifth time in seven games.

“We’re a young team that is inconsistent,” Blaylock said. “Right now, we’ve hit a bump in the road. It started with the Drake series, and we’ve just got to get our feet back under us.”

The Salukis were swept last weekend at home by Drake, scoring just three runs off the league’s best team, and the slump appears to have carried over. They managed only 11 runs in four games this week. The lack of offense helped cost them the rubber game of this three-game set.

Kyleigh Decker did her part. The sophomore first baseman laced a two-run single into left to initiate the scoring in the first. Two innings later, her next swing produced a booming double to the gap in left-center that scored Jenny Jansen for a 3-1 lead.

Decker also made three above-average plays defensively. She threw behind a runner after Leslie Sims’ bunt single in the second to start a rundown that led to the third out and prevented Bailey Martin from hitting with the bases loaded, and her big stretch for shortstop Savannah Fisher’s throw helped record the third out of the third.

“I think I’ve made the adjustment of hitting the top of the ball, and hitting through the middle of the field and working the gaps,” Decker said.

Starter Brianna Jones worked out of jams in each of the first four innings and carried a two-run cushion to the sixth, but the Sycamores (20-19, 7-7) equalized in the sixth. Becky Malchow’s infield out made it 3-2, and Martin’s two-out RBI double that landed just out of Susie Baranski’s reach in right-center sent the lightning-fast Sims home from first.

Jones returned to the circle after Savanna Dover (4-11) walked Bella Peterson to open the seventh, but a one-out double by Amanda Guercio snapped the tie. Guercio then stole home on the first steal attempt of her career when she escaped a rundown.

Abbey Kruzel (4-5) worked 3 2/3 scoreless innings for the win, and Arielle Blankenship picked up her third save.

SIU has work to do if it wants to defend its Valley tournament title next month. Its last 12 games are in the conference, beginning with a Wednesday doubleheader at Missouri State. Eight of those games are on the road.

“You need to take game one at Missouri State and take it one game at a time,” Blaylock said. “You can’t hope that something goes away. You have to play hard and play mistake-free.”

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