Saluki Softball opens its fall season this weekend with a double header from Charlotte West Stadium against two in-state foes, Rend Lake College and John A. Logan College.
Sunday’s doubleheader marks the first of eight home exhibition games that the Salukis will play this fall in a series of preseason warm-up games to give the defending Missouri Valley Conference Champions a chance to gel as a team.
“We’ve got two pitchers that are coming back and we have seven starters that had significant playing time returning. We also have five freshmen that are coming in that are very talented,” head coach Kerri Blaylock said. “We use fall ball as a chance to play everybody to see where we are at. We will play multiple lineups, positions and those types of things.”
Last season, the Salukis posted a 33-24 record while going 17-8 in Missouri Valley play. Southern capped off the regular season by winning eight of its last 10 games before defeating Missouri State, Illinois State and UNI in the MVC Tournament to win the league title and earn its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2007.
Southern lost several key players to graduation last year including all-time RBI and doubles leader Shaye Harre. Luckily for the Salukis, returning to the team is a nucleus of young talent including senior infielder Syndey Jones and sophomores Katelyn Massa and Maddy Vermejan. All three players were selected to All-MVC teams at the end of the 2017 regular season.
Also returning is the Salukis’ ace pitcher, Brianna Jones. Jones won 18 games in 2017 striking out 130 batters and walking just 35 in 213.1 innings pitched. She posted an ERA of 2.40 on her way to an All-MVC First Team selection.
The Salukis will welcome freshmen, Maris Boelens, Megan Brown, Shelby Hodo, Jenny Jansen and Meredith Wernig to the team this year. Blaylock said that the Saluki faithful will get a chance to see all five newcomers play throughout the fall and that they are settling into the team nicely.
“What is nice about early recruiting and early verbal commitments is that it allows new players to the team a chance to visit campus several times and get to know our kids,” Blaylock said. “It really makes that transition a lot easier. We scrimmaged earlier this week and all the freshmen played and hit the ball very well. They look like they belong.”
Throughout the fall, the Salukis will play eight games at home from Sept. 10 to Oct. 1. The team will welcome some stiff competition into Charlotte West Stadium. Southern takes on three Division I programs in Saint Louis, Southeast Missouri State and Murray State. The three Division I opponents combined to win 84 games in 2017 and Murray State qualified for the National Invitational Softball Championship. Southern is also hosting two very good Division II programs in Southern Indiana and Missouri – St. Louis. In 2017, USI made a run all the way to the NCAA Division II Softball Championship and UMSL hosted the Division II NCAA Midwest Regional.
“We try to always schedule Division I teams,” Blaylock said. “A lot of Division I schools don’t schedule other Division I teams in fall ball, but we feel like it is very important. We have a good mix of Division I, Division II and junior college teams that we play. The junior colleges are very, very good. It is really a good way to test our kids.”
Southern’s fall season kicks off on Saturday at SIU’s football game against Mississippi Valley State when the 2017 MVC Championship team will be awarded their rings in a ceremony at halftime. The following day, the Salukis will take on Rend Lake College at noon and John A. Logan at 2 p.m. Admission is free to all children 12 and under.
For all of the updates with Saluki softball, be sure to follow the team on Twitter and Instagram @SIU_Softball and on Facebook at Saluki Softball.
This story from SIUSalukis.com’s Tony McDaniel