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Sports Column | Bucky Dent: Sewell can keep Salukis on track

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Bucky Dent

Bucky Dent

There are very few athletic programs anywhere that have enjoyed the same level of stability as SIU softball.

Consider this: Since Dr. Kay Brechstelbauer started the program in 1968, the Salukis have changed coaches twice. Brechstelbauer coached until 1999, Kerri Blaylock took over in 2000 and Jen Sewell was named the new coach on Monday.

And in both instances, the new coach was someone who served as the lead assistant under the previous coach. Or to put it another way: In 55 years of existence, SIU has had as many coaches as the Pittsburgh Steelers.

While Brechstelbauer, Blaylock and Sewell may not command the same brand name recognition as Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher or Mike Tomlin, it’s hard to argue with the results. The Salukis have won 1,405 games and lost 864 with four ties, a winning percentage of just under 62 percent.

That’s just one reason why everyone at Monday’s press conference, whether it was Sewell, Blaylock or interim athletic director Matt Kupec, was touting the virtues of stability.

“We’ve been so good for so long and done it the right way,” Kupec said. “I would think it’s the goal of any athletic director or any program in the country. It’s a great thing to be able to transition like this.

“We feel so good about our future and we are in such a good place. It’s great recognition when you can promote from within.”

And this was a no-brainer. If you read this space or know me, you know I tend to be cynical about a lot of things. Forty-plus years in the business tells you not to take everything – in some cases, hardly anything – at face value.

But I don’t mind crawling out on the limb to tell you this: Sewell is a rock star in waiting. She knows the game. She can communicate what she knows to players and she loves teaching.

It doesn’t hurt that she’s good with us media types, unless you’re the Valley on ESPN crew that was in Evansville last month to work a doubleheader and tried an in-game interview with her shortly after Sarah Harness endured a marathon inning during which every close pitch was a ball.

Announcer: “What have you noticed about Sarah?”

Sewell: “Definitely being squeezed.”

Announcer: “Well … thanks for talking, coach.”

That Gregg Popovich moment aside, Sewell brings a lot to the table. In the final 35 games of this season, which she coached after Blaylock stepped aside for health reasons on March 2, Sewell went 21-13-1 behind an offense that averaged just over six runs per game.

And as she noted Tuesday, taking over for Blaylock has been about as easy a transition for a first-time head coach as exists. Aside from perhaps the email signature and a change of offices when Blaylock officially retires at the start of June, nothing has really changed.

“We were right back in the office at 8 this morning, just like always,” Sewell said. “It felt like another day, even if the title was different.”

This was Kupec’s third hire in just over two months and probably his easiest. Craig Roberts has done good work already in changing the culture of the women’s soccer program, while Kelly Bond-White has been busy laying the foundation for a women’s basketball program transitioning from the Cindy Stein era.

The only transition at Charlotte West Stadium is the name in charge of the program. More than a half-century of success under two dedicated coaches explains why the trains merely need to keep running on time.

Sewell appears to be the engineer to make it happen.

Bucky Dent covers SIU 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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