Rhodes, Salukis eyeing first postseason run in three decades


Jared Treece | @bisalo

The Salukis’ Baseball team huddles after the Salukis 9-1 win over Western Illinois to help extend their undefeated season to eight wins on Tuesday, Mar. 2, 2021 at Itchy Jones Stadium in Carbondale, Ill.

In 2021 the SIU baseball team hit a mark it hadn’t reached since 1990: winning 40 games in a season. In 2022, it aims to replicate what the 1990 team – the last Saluki team to win the Missouri Valley Conference and make the NCAA Tournament –- accomplished.

“Our ultimate goal is to make a Regional,” outfielder J.T. Weber said. “We’d love to win conference, win the conference tournament, and make that happen.”

Weber is entering his final season for the Salukis. In his first four years, SIU didn’t finish higher than fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference standings. The same could be said for any Saluki in the last decade and a half. The belief in the locker room is that the program is heading in the direction to change that.


“Because they’ve been here going on four or five years now and have not been in the postseason any of those years, to be able to get those guys into a Regional would be pretty cool,” head coach Lance Rhodes said.

Rhodes is no stranger to success. In four years as an assistant at Southeast Missouri State, Rhodes’s teams won three regular season Ohio Valley Conference championships, culminating in an OVC Tournament championship and NCAA Tournament appearance in 2016. In his two years as head coach at SIU, Rhodes’s Salukis have gone a combined 52-26, including a 40-win 2021 season.

“Usually at least you’re in the discussion for being in a Regional if you’re around 40 wins, so that’s the goal every single year,” Rhodes said.

While a lot has been made about SIU’s 40-win season, now that the standard for the Rhodes regime has been set, players and coaches alike are looking towards bigger goals.

“It’s awesome to win 40 games, but we want to win championships,” outfielder Evan Martin said. “We want to bring MVC championships back to Carbondale.”

Martin is entering his redshirt sophomore season. However, this will be his fourth year with the team, redshirting in 2019 and gaining an extra year of eligibility after the 2020 season was cut short by COVID-19. While Martin’s class indicates youth, the experience he’s built during that time could be invaluable for the Salukis.

“I think it’s helped me tremendously,” Martin said. “Getting the chance to just sit in the dugout and watch Division I baseball coming from high school, it was awesome and it really helped me learn the game. I was able to pick up things, pitching tendencies, see guys’ approaches, see guys’ swings, and just give me something to look forward to the following years.”


Even older Salukis have benefited from the extra year of eligibility. Weber was in his junior year when the 2020 season was cut short, allowing him to extend the back half of his career. In 2021, Weber put up his best numbers yet, hitting 15 home runs and having a .322/.375/.589 slashline.

“That was just a product of a couple years of maturing, seeing a lot more pitching, and getting a lot more reps,” Weber said. “That was the biggest thing that COVID really helped a lot of mid-majors. Most mid-majors got all their guys back, got their juniors and seniors back, and just gave us another year to take a lot more swings.”

One of the most important factors for building a successful program at the mid-major level is experience. Although players didn’t get to play a full season in 2020, the additional practice and improving their craft over the extra year has given everyone an opportunity to improve.

“Experience is always a good thing, especially when you have experience with talented players at the same time. We’ve got that again this year I believe,” Rhodes said.

The extra year has also allowed some players to accumulate more counting statistics. Closer Trey McDaniel is nine saves away from tying the all-time record. McDaniel racked up nine in 2021, and had 14 in 2019, so the record is well in reach.

While the Salukis have their sights set high, they know that it won’t be as simple as repeating last year’s success.

“I am very happy with what we did last year, but last year was last year,” Rhodes said. “Every year is a new season. You’ve got new obstacles that you’re going to have to face, you’ve got to build a new team chemistry every single year. It’s never easy just because you had success previously.”

One factor that looks to be improved from 2021 is COVID restrictions, which have been loosened for the new year. While the situation is fluid, the team says they’re prepared to face whatever obstacles stand in their way.

“It’s all things that we were used to last year, so our guys understand that it’s just a part of it right now,” Rhodes said. “We don’t need to grumble about it or anything like that. We’ll just do what we need to do in order to be able to compete, take care of our business, and hopefully have everybody healthy enough to play a full season again.”

Weber reported the team having no problems with COVID-19 in 2021. However, what did impact the team was the change in scheduling to accommodate testing protocols. Typically, teams will play a three-game series over the weekend, and play a single game against a different opponent during the week. In 2021, SIU played four-game series every weekend, leading to frequent doubleheaders and causing fatigue.

“We’re used to playing three games and then having a game in the middle of the week. It was just a good flow to the season,” Weber said. “[In 2021], the four-game series was hard on a lot of our bodies.”

Despite the potential obstacles, the Salukis pushed through and turned in one of the best seasons in recent program history. Now, they look to make it back-to-back complete winning seasons for the first time since 2007-08.

“Everyone in the country had those obstacles with COVID, it wasn’t just us,” Martin said. “…And the teams that persevere through that and don’t make it an obstacle are going to be more successful, and I think that’s what our team did really well.”

Saluki baseball will begin its season on the weekend of Feb. 18 when it travels to play Louisiana-Monroe. The first game at Itchy Jones Stadium is March 1 against Western Illinois at 3 p.m.

Staff reporter Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @Brandyn_2020. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.