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Sports Column | Bucky Dent: Prep football not that far away

Sports Column | Bucky Dent: Prep football not that far away

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Lots of stuff to unpack from the old notebook this week, so let’s take a look at it:

1. Seems hard to believe that we’re at the midway point of this COVID-19 version of a basketball season. It also seems harder to believe that we’re less than a month away from the first week of high school football.

While we won’t get Carbondale vs. Murphysboro in this six-week season, we’ll get a couple of helpings of Carbondale vs. Marion. The South Seven rivals plan to open and close the season against each other in an interesting twist.

The first Carbondale-Marion clash on March 19 highlights an interesting opening week. Other tasty matchups include the annual Franklin County showdown with Benton and West Frankfort on March 20 at Benton, as well as Rod Sherrill’s debut of his second stint at Herrin when he takes the Tigers to Murphysboro on the 20th.

It looks like the schedule will be split between Friday and Saturday games for the first two weeks before becoming mostly Friday night games after the calendar flips to April. As is the case in basketball, there will be no postseason for football in this school year.

But at least they’ll get to put on the pads and have most of a season, which is more than many of us thought they would get just a few weeks ago.

2. The guess was that SIU’s softball team was headed for a second straight NCAA Tournament berth last spring before the pandemic interrupted a nine-game winning streak.

While it’s not the same team that’s taken the field this month, it’s the same momentum, just 11 months later. The Salukis are off to a 6-0 start that includes a road win at then-No. 22 Mississippi State on Sunday.

Yet SIU is probably a few weeks away (and several more wins, for that matter) from getting a national ranking in front of its name. It received two votes in this week’s USA Today/NFCA Coaches Top 25 poll, which is a start but also somewhat insulting when one sees Mississippi State still received 55 votes.

There are other polls out there, all heavily weighted towards Power 5 schools because they always wind up in Oklahoma City. Louisiana and Central Florida are the only two interlopers in the coaches’ poll, and UCF dropped out of the ESPN poll this week.

I’ve seen a lot of softball for a lot of years and I feel comfortable telling you the Salukis are a legit Top 25 squad. They boast all the attributes – good defense, pitching, offense, team speed, depth and sound coaching.

This doesn’t mean they’ll win the Valley or even make the NCAA field. Softball is a capricious sport in a post-season format and the tiniest bad break can decide your season in the wrong moment.

The best thing SIU can do right now is what it did its first two weekends in Mississippi. Keep winning, avoid the RPI landmines and it will eventually earn the national respect its recent success merits.

3. After seeing Hunter Simmons play basketball Saturday, I can understand why Marion football coach Kerry Martin was excited to see him transfer from Mount Vernon.

The 6-foot-5 Simmons, who will replace Lucas Will at quarterback this spring, notched a double-double in an overtime win over Murphysboro. He also came up clutch down the stretch, hitting the tying bucket in regulation and the eventual game-winning in OT.

While he might get just six games to show what he can do in Martin’s spread offense, I suspect Simmons will leave his new coach and Wildcat fans wishing they had a full season (including playoffs) to show how far he could take the program.

Bucky Dent covers prep sports for the Southern Illinoisan and also votes on the Wooden Award. He can be reached at bucky.dent@thesouthern.com or at 618-351-5086.

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