Jen Sewell guides Saluki softball in her first offseason as head coach


Tulsa, Oklahoma, native Jen Sewell spent 13 years as an assistant coach on Kerri Blaylock’s staff. During that time, the Southern Illinois softball program went to the NCAA postseason three times and won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament twice.

On March 2, 2022, Blaylock stepped down from her position as head coach, and Sewell took on the job as interim before becoming the permanent coach later in the summer. The team didn’t miss a beat, accumulating a 21-13-1 record after Sewell took over.

Sewell believes that the longstanding culture of the program allowed her transition to go as smoothly as possible.


“I think the program’s bigger than the pressure that’s on me,” Sewell said. “It’s a bigger culture than that. I think my job is just to maintain what is a formula that’s always worked here.”

Sewell is only the third head coach in Saluki softball history, which dates back to 1968 with Dr. Kay Brechtelsbauer and continued with Blaylock in 2000. Both of her predecessors are Saluki Hall of Famers, with Blaylock to be inducted on Oct. 15.

“We just keep doing what the program values,” Sewell said. “Nothing has really changed in that aspect. That was decided a long time ago when Kay Brechtelsbauer was with this program, and then taken over by Kerri.”

Saluki softball’s sustained success across several decades makes Sewell’s job easier in a way, treating the job as business as usual. That isn’t to say that circumstances have been normal in recent years, with the COVID-19 pandemic dictating a lot of how collegiate athletics have operated since 2020.

“There were times during the pandemic when we weren’t in our clubhouse. We couldn’t be in the locker room together. We couldn’t eat dinner together. We were spread out differently,” Sewell said. “And those are the times that we build chemistry in the offseason, sitting down to a meal together or doing an activity together.”

Restrictions related to the pandemic limited what players could do together off the field. Although they took the field together as a team, it was difficult to keep that feeling up when gatherings and activities were so restricted.

“We’re such a big culture program and a family program, that it was hard to have to keep the family apart. It was like not getting able to see your best friend. We put in a lot of effort to keep kids calm and comfortable and training, and things like that. But I know that in the back of their mind that there was some worry, like, ‘am I the next one that’s gonna have to be sitting out away from my buddies?’”


However, the situation has improved enough to allow those protocols to be lifted, giving some Salukis their first ever normal offseason.

“I think you can tell they’re a little freer in this offseason,” Sewell said. “It’s much more of a college campus type experience. They can go to football, they’ll be able to go to basketball, volleyball, track.”

Although softball season doesn’t start until spring, the Salukis always play exhibition games during the warmer weekends in the fall. This period provides a preview of the new team, and allows the coaching staff to assess what the team will need to work on, and what it can excel at.

“We’ve tried multiple different batting lineups. Pitching’s been kind of set,” Sewell said. “I feel like we’ve tried a little bit of everything, which I like. So by the time we get to the spring, we’re gonna know a little bit better about what works.”

The Salukis played eight exhibition games this fall; one each against Division I Saint Louis and Division II Maryville, and the rest against various local community colleges in Illinois and Missouri. Sewell said the team needs games against teams like Saint Louis and Maryville to “judge where we are.”

Additionally, the exhibition contests serve as a friendly yet competitive challenge against opponents that give the Salukis a taste of the level of play they will experience when the spring season rolls around.

“It’s just reminding these players, especially the young ones, that you’ve stepped up a level, so you’ve got to step your game up a level. You can’t just do what you’ve always done,” Sewell said.

A notable feature of the 2023 Saluki softball team will be its youth. Only three seniors are on the roster, who combined for just 18% of the team’s at-bats last season compared to 31% taken by the 2022 senior class.

Part of the reason for this is the impact of the COVID year granted to NCAA athletes in 2020 that allowed them to retain an extra year of eligibility. Sewell said this will be the first year with no “COVID seniors,” meaning that the 2023 team will be as they were recruited without any abnormal eligibility situations.

“The COVID thing was a good thing, and it was also an interesting thing for some because it backed up a couple people in playing time,” Sewell said. “This is the year that I told them, ‘this is your year to go and to really play.’”

“I think everyone that we have on our roster probably could play two positions and easily hit in our lineup,” Sewell said. “I think, with the graduations, became some big openings, especially up the middle of our field.”

Along with the entire starting outfield from last year’s MVC tournament game against Illinois State, only third baseman Rylie Hamilton will return among infielders, as catcher Sydney Sikes, and infielders Jenny Jansen and Ashley Wood were part of the outgoing senior class.

“Those are key positions, especially for us defensively, but those kids were also big in our offensive lineup,” Sewell said. “It’s a big opportunity for some of those young kids to jump right into the lineup.”

Now that the exhibition games are over, the team will have a few more months to get ready for the regular season, which will begin in February 2023. That journey begins with how Southern will handle the rest of this offseason, building off of what it learned during exhibition action.

“Now I can literally just write bullet points of exactly the things that we’re gonna go after, down to the littlest skill, up to some of the game management pieces that we need to work on,” Sewell said. “We’ll have a very precise plan going into the offseason, and I think any time you have kids who can play multiple positions, it’s been about seeing what works together.”

Saluki softball will look to continue its streak of seven consecutive winning seasons, and return to the NCAA Tournament after doing so in three of the last five seasons where a postseason was held.

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