NORMAL — Southern Illinois softball coach Kerri Blaylock remembers fondly the Salukis’ last Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship.
“1991, buddy, my first year with the program,” Blaylock said. “I was 23-24 years old, a long time ago.”
The trip down memory lane was particularly sweet for Blaylock on Saturday as the third-seeded Salukis scored four runs in the fourth inning and hung on for a 4-3 title game win over top seed Northern Iowa at Marian Kneer Stadium.
“We’ve been second as a program a lot over those 28 years,” said Blaylock. “I can’t even describe it. I’m so impressed with how our kids played, their fight, their heart. I’m just super impressed.”
The Salukis knocked off the top two seeds (UNI and Illinois State) to advance to their first NCAA tournament since 2007.
“I couldn’t think of any better way to go out,” said senior first baseman Shaye Harre, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. “We had to stick it in on defense and try not to let them come back on us.”
After Northern Iowa (33-19) surged ahead on a Courtney Krodinger double and a Brittney Roby single in the third, Southern (33-22) seized control with four two-out runs in the fourth.
Eyrika Brandenburg’s single to left field drove pinch runner and Normal Community High School graduate Brittany Turner and Savannah Fisher. Susie Baranski scored on a wild pitch and Brandenburg brought home the fourth run on a Harre single.
“That’s usually where great teams work, with two outs,” Harre said.
The Panthers inched closer on Bailey Lange’s fifth-inning solo home run to right field and were threatening to erase their deficit in the sixth when Roby singled and Macey Wolfe doubled off the glove of Southern left fielder Brandenburg.
Savanna Dover, who bedeviled ISU for 6⅓ innings Friday in a 2-0 semifinal win, relieved Brianna Jones and allowed a sacrifice fly to Kennedy Bailey. Dover preserved the lead by setting down Anna Varriano and Alyssa Buchanan on foul outs.
“She (Jones) has thrown a lot of innings this year. Her velocity came down a little,” said Blaylock. “It was time to turn it over. We’ve got a good staff and we’re going to use them. I can’t say enough about Savanna Dover.”
Dover walked Sammey Bunch to start the UNI seventh and forced Bunch at second base on a comebacker for the second out on an extremely close play.
Center fielder Merri Ann Patterson chased down Brittney Krodinger’s drive into right-center field for the final out as Saluki gloves were tossed high into the air in celebration.
“This championship game is an example of how tough and competitive our league is,” Panthers coach Ryan Jacobs said. “I’m really proud of my team and the league itself. Southern’s got great pitching and great hitters. They will represent our league very well in the tournament."
Jaclyn Spencer, who was relieved in the fourth inning by Buchanan, took the loss for UNI.
Redbirds all-tournament: ISU outfielder Annie Heineman and pitcher Sarah Finck were selected to the 15-player all-tournament team.