The Southern Illinois University softball team is coming off a 33-24 season. The Salukis won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament last year. And, the team lost just three players to graduation.
On the other hand, the three players are Shaye Harre, Merri Anne Patterson and Jessa Thomas. Harre, the starting first baseman, hit .338 last year with eight home runs and 40 RBI. Patterson, the starting center fielder, hit .287 with seven homers and 39 RBI. Thomas was a fixture behind the plate.
“It’s going to be different this year,” said SIU coach Kerri Blaylock. “There will have to be more people produce. We know that and we feel good about that. We feel going one through nine we are probably in better shape.”
And, that’s not just blind optimism talking.
The Salukis were picked second in the MVC preseason poll. Four players, pitcher Brianna Jones, third baseman Sydney Jones, second baseman Maddy Vermejan and outfielder Susie Baranski were named to the preseason all-conference team.
Baranski started all 57 games last year, hitting .293 as a freshman. Sydney Jones played a solid third base while batting .250 with a team-leading nine home runs. Vermejan was nearly perfect defensively at second and hit. 284.
“There is a ton of experience,” Blaylock said. “A ton of kids that had played with each other. This is the best we’ve taken batting practice since Jen (Sewell) has been with me as a hitting coach. I’m just excited about that potential to score some reasons without waiting for one or two people to get it done.”
And, the offensive production of Katelyn Massa can’t be overlooked. She hit .297 with five home runs as a freshman while providing excellent defense behind the plate. Massa is in much better shape this season, shedding 70 pounds.
“I’m disappointed she (Massa) was not on the preseason team,” Blaylock said. “That kid is a phenomenal catcher. Everyone knows about her hitting, but she has great hands, a great arm and a great footwork. She’s dropped 70 pounds. She was good before. She transformed herself. I’m very proud of her.”
In the circle, Brianna Jones was stellar, finishing 18-13 with a 2.40 ERA. Add Savanna Dover, 7-4, 3.04 ERA, and the Salukis have a solid 1-2 pitching punch.
“To me, they could both be all-conference type pitchers,” Blaylock said. “They are proven. They’ve been through the wars. They have thrown in some really, really big games. Both of them, what I feel so good, I always feel the end of one year catapults you into the next year. I feel like the way the both of them finished, we are going to start off in Texas in a good manner. We feel like we are there.”
Defensively, the Salukis are likely to start Kyleigh Decker, last year’s back-up shortstop, at first base, Vermejan at second, Savannah Fisher at short, Jones at third, Massa behind the plate and Baranski at one of the outfield sports.
Eyrika Brandenburg, who started 54 games last year, will be sidelined indefinitely by medical issues. The other two outfield spots will be filled by freshmen Jenny Jansen, Maris Boelens and Megan Brown or senior Brittany Taylor.
Blaylock said the team defense has been one of the highlights of early workouts. Speed will also be a plus.
Although the team is long on experience, there will also be a youthful element that could be a concern.
“I guess maybe a little bit of youth, we will at times be starting three freshmen,” Blaylock said. “I feel like they are ready to play. I think it’s more about getting them some game action.”
The season begins Friday at the University of Texas-San Antonio Softball Classic. The Salukis play the host school and Abilene Christian University. The tournament continues through Sunday.