“We want to be playing our best softball in May”: Salukis look to finish the season strong

In the three-year period from 2019-2021, Saluki softball went 86-37, winning 70% of its games and making appearances in the NCAA Tournament both times the tournament was held. Those final three full seasons under long-time head coach Kerri Blaylock were some of the best seasons the program had experienced since the mid-2000’s.

On March 2, Blaylock stepped down as head coach for health reasons. In her place came interim coach Jen Sewell, who has been at Southern Illinois for 14 years. Sewell is credited with transforming SIU into one of the best offenses in the Valley; one that routinely leads the conference in most offensive categories.

While any midseason coaching change can rock a program, Sewell’s transition to becoming the third head softball coach in school history has been smooth sailing so far, as the Salukis have gone 11-7 since she took over.


“She [Sewell] knows how this place works and knows how to keep it going,” utility player Jenny Jansen said. “It really hasn’t been much of a difference.”

No stranger to Saluki softball, Sewell joined the team in 2009 as a volunteer assistant before being added to the full staff in 2010. She had spent 11 years at Southern Illinois as an associate head coach before 2022. Her integration into the lead role has been as fluid as anyone could hope.

“She knows how the ball rolls around here, and our culture,” infielder Ashley Wood said. “‘We’re just like a family so it didn’t really affect us.”

Under Sewell, Southern Illinois has kept up its offensive production in 2022, leading the Valley in batting average, on-base percentage, runs per game and walks.

“I think a lot of people don’t see that Jen was more of the on-the-field coach and Kerri was kind of like a baseball manager…” Jansen said. “So I think when she stepped down, it wasn’t really a huge change, because Jen’s kinda the one that runs practices and coaches throughout the game.”

While Blaylock has stepped away from coaching duties, she still maintains an administrative role within the program and helps with day-to-day operations.

“I do know that we miss her, and we miss just talking to her and having fun,” Jansen said. “She’s just a really good person to be around.”


Jansen is in her fifth and final year with the Salukis. She holds the all-time records in career hits and RBIs and sits in the top five in home runs. Jansen, more than anyone, has reaped the rewards of Sewell’s offense.

Jansen’s rate stats in 2022 are hovering around career highs, and her counting stats are on pace for a similar feat. With her career soon coming to a close, her focus has been just on finishing strong and enjoying the end of the ride.

“I’m just trying to have fun in my last year,” Jansen said. “I know I only have about 15 games left. I just go play every game with the mindset that it’s supposed to be fun, and I’m not gonna get to do this forever.”

Jansen took advantage of the extra year of eligibility given by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Given one more chance to write her final chapter, Jansen capitalized.

“I’m here on my terms, and I kinda get to do it my own way and have fun the way I wanted to,” Jansen said. “I picked to be here, so just keeping that mindset that it’s fun, and I’m here because I chose to be here. It makes it a lot better and it makes it fun. It’s gonna make it easier going out.”

Her fellow senior, Ashley Wood, has another year of eligibility but is choosing to forgo it and call it a career after this spring.

For several athletes, including Jansen, the opportunity to play an additional year of their sport is exciting, and for some it’s the obvious choice. For others, like Wood, it’s simply time to wrap it up.

“I have a COVID year, but I’m not gonna take it. I’m too old. My body’s falling apart.” Wood joked. “I’ve had my time.”

The decision to exercise an athlete’s “COVID year” carries a lot of weight in their immediate future. It allows them to squeeze one final year out of a sport they had played for over a decade, but also forces them to return to school and go through yet another year of academic studies on top of the stress of keeping in competition form. Most players have to apply for grad school to return to their sport because their academic progress will have been completed in their first four years.

“It’s a lot of other factors that come into play,” Wood said. “It’s a lot more than just playing.”

In Wood’s case, her 2021 season was cut short by a knee injury. She has bounced back well from that injury, batting .344 with an OPS of .938 while starting each of the team’s first 30 games.

“I’ve never had a major injury like that before, so I didn’t know what the comeback would have been like,” Wood said. “It’s been pretty smooth… It took me a weekend to get comfortable playing again, but I think after that tournament, I kinda just got on a roll.”

Wood’s 30 games played so far this year is the most she’s played in a spring season since her freshman campaign in 2019. Between her second year getting cut short by the pandemic, her third year ending with an injury, and being forced to miss the exhibition games the team played this past fall, this season is a test of endurance for Wood.

“It definitely felt like I took four years off,” Wood said, referring to her first weekend back at the beginning of this season.

Before the year began, Jansen set some team goals: Winning the regular season conference championship, staying consistent throughout the season and going back to the NCAA Tournament and making some noise. With a month left to go and the Salukis sitting at 17-13 (6-5 MVC), they will have some work to do to hit all of those marks.

The team started off the year going 2-2 in each of its first three weekend tournaments. Conference play opened up in mid-March, with the Salukis scheduled to play five games in five days against the top teams in the Valley in Missouri State and Northern Iowa.

Further complicating that stretch was the fact that Missouri State was scheduled to play a doubleheader against SIU on Wednesday. The first game went 13 innings and ended in a 6-2 SIU victory, but the worn-out Salukis dropped the second game that immediately followed, and were swept by Northern Iowa that weekend.

However, since those early struggles, SIU has bounced back to take six of its last seven games and enters a portion of the schedule that many consider to be more winnable games. Opponents such as Valparaiso (9-18, 1-8 MVC) and Bradley (17-15, 5-4 MVC) are teams Southern Illinois will need to beat if it hopes to compete among the league’s best.

“I think we got a lot of the hard series at the beginning, and now we’re kinda coming into the middle,” Wood said. “I think that’s gonna help us get into a groove right before the conference tournament.”

Like with most college sports, regular season play only matters up to a point. To a team with the recent success that SIU has experienced, what truly matters is its performance in the postseason. If it can finish strong with momentum heading into the Missouri Valley Conference tournament on the weekend of May 11, everyone will forget the early season struggles.

“I’ve been telling everyone the whole year: if we’re playing our best softball in March and April, we’re in trouble,” Jansen said. “We want to be playing our best softball in May.”

A fact that best highlights this is the relationship between Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa. In 2019, SIU swept UNI, but the Panthers ended up winning when they met in the Valley tournament later that year. In 2021, the Salukis were swept by UNI but ended up winning the Valley championship in May.

“When you go to the postseason, everybody’s 0-0,” Jansen said. “It’s definitely hard to beat a team four times. I think we’re due for a win when we go play [Northern Iowa] next time.”

The Salukis will next play at home against Indiana State on April 23, hosting the Sycamores at Charlotte West Stadium for a doubleheader on that day followed by a third game the next day. They will finish out the Valley schedule, with the conference tournament scheduled for the weekend of May 11 in Springfield, Missouri.

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.