Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

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Perfect Game: Groff twins’ debut marks milestone for SIU softball

Pitcher+Maddia+Groff+%28left%29%2C+pitching+coach+Katie+Griffith+%28center%29%2C+and+catcher+Rylinn+Groff+%28right%29+pose+with+the+game+ball+from+Maddia+Groffs+perfect+game+Feb.+9%2C+2024+at+Bobcat+Softball+Stadium+in+San+Marcos%2C+Texas.+Photo+provided+by+Saluki+Athletics.
Saluki Athletics
Pitcher Maddia Groff (left), pitching coach Katie Griffith (center), and catcher Rylinn Groff (right) pose with the game ball from Maddia Groff’s perfect game Feb. 9, 2024 at Bobcat Softball Stadium in San Marcos, Texas. Photo provided by Saluki Athletics.

Freshman Maddia Groff said her nerves calmed after her first inning of work. She was making her debut for Saluki softball on opening day against a team just a 20-minute drive away from where she grew up. No one realized just how historic her next few hours would be.

Perhaps no one at Bobcat Stadium in San Marcos, Texas, was more familiar with her work than the Saluki catcher, also making her collegiate debut: her twin sister Rylinn Groff.

Seven innings later, the twins had orchestrated the first full-length perfect game in school history.

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“It’s just a full circle moment,” Maddia Groff said. “Because for girls everywhere, college softball is it. This is the dream. We’ve been aiming for this most of our entire lives, so it was just a really special moment where you can see your hard work translate.”

The Salukis mobbed the mound, as the catcher Rylinn touched gloves with the pitcher Maddia. But they’d been through big moments like this before, and they’ve done so their entire lives together.

“You probably can’t duplicate that in any other way,” Saluki softball head coach Jen Sewell said. “Even if you were just friends, good friends, best friends, pitcher-catcher, I’m not sure that you can duplicate that sort of intuitive nature with each other.”

Pitcher Maddia Groff (left) and catcher Rylinn Groff (right) pose with the game ball from Maddia’s perfect game in their collegiate debut Feb. 9, 2024 at Bobcat Stadium in San Marcos, Texas. Photo provided by Saluki Athletics. (Saluki Athletics)

On Friday, Feb. 9, Maddia Groff took the mound for SIU’s first game of the season. By the end of the team’s 3-0 win over Creighton, she hadn’t given up a baserunner after retiring all 21 batters in a row.

“I honestly didn’t even realize it until I think the sixth inning or so,” Maddia Groff said. “I usually don’t realize that stuff until later on, because like I said, I’m just more sucked into the game and making sure that we’re in the position to win.”

Part of the reason why it is the first seven-inning perfect game in school history is that teams will often run-rule an opponent during the game, as was the case during Madi Eberle’s 2022 no-hitter that ended 8-0 after five innings.

With the game being as tight as it was, not only was Maddia Groff chasing perfection, but also looking to hold a relatively slim lead.

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“I think that kind of fed into the whole, I didn’t even realize it was happening,” Maddia Groff said. “Because it was such a close game that you’re just laser focused on, okay, six more outs. Three more outs. Closing out the win, more than any other stat that was going on.”

Later that afternoon, the Groff twins entered the second game of a doubleheader in relief – Maddia on the mound, and Rylinn substituting in as her personal catcher. They would work another 4.2 perfect innings as the Salukis would win in extra innings 6-5 over UTSA, with Rylinn Groff scoring the winning run.

“I can’t describe it for our program but it’s obviously a huge deal. But for the Groffs, it’s a very normal thing for them to go out and do something like that,” Sewell said. “It’s a funny mix of like, normalcy for us, and then realizing what a special combination they are.”

A superstition in softball is not to mention a perfect game or no-hitter as it is going on, but it’s difficult to ignore a scoreboard with a zero in the hits column. With such a historic feat in the making, everyone in the dugout on Friday, from the coaches to the players to the athletic trainer, had eyes on Maddia Groff.

“You recognize the no-hitter, but then you’re trying to remember without looking if there’s been something like a walk or something with the perfect game,” Sewell said. “Nobody wants to say it out loud.”

Sewell has been on staff for several excellent pitching performances, including Madi Eberle’s no-hitter in 2022. The program is no stranger to top-tier pitching, and Maddia Groff’s first start seems to ensure she will be adding her name to a long legacy.

“This has been a pitcher university for a long time,” Sewell said. “There’s been some greats that have come through here. About every two-to-three years, we get an incredible number one and usually a number two. So to be out there and throw the first-ever seven-inning perfect game is a pretty big deal.”

In total, Maddia Groff retired the first 36 batters she faced before finally giving up a hit in her third appearance – another complete game and win on Saturday against Texas State.

“We were really ready to help our team in any way that we could,” Maddia Groff said. “It just happened to be the first game of the season and our first game as Salukis. But I would say any time we compete, we’re going for that.”

The Groff twins are no strangers to success. Both were named All-Nebraska Super-State co-captains in high school, and Maddia Groff holds the all-time career strikeout record in the state of Nebraska. They also won a state championship at Marian High School in Omaha, Nebraska, in their senior season.

“She’s in a long list of great pitchers that have come out of the state of Nebraska,” Sewell said. “To come this far and just trust us with her career is pretty cool.”

To add even more improbability to their already impossible day, the victim of Maddia Groff’s perfect game was the Creighton Blue Jays, a team based in Omaha, Nebraska.

Maddia Groff’s name will be listed in the record books, but just as much credit goes to battery mate Rylinn Groff. Not only does she have familiarity with Maddia, but she also calls her own games.

“Sometimes Katie Griffith is involved in that, our pitching coach, and sometimes I might make a suggestion, but otherwise we stay out of their way,” Sewell said. “Very intuitive with each other, and very intuitive with the pitch-calling. Rylinn is the hidden hero in that moment.”

Despite the milestone moment, the Groff twins continue to keep a team-focused mindset, basing their success on the wins and losses of the team. Thus far, Maddia Groff has won all three of the games she has pitched in for SIU.

“I’m just trying to keep it focused on wins, and doing my job as a pitcher, it’s just getting outs,” Maddia Groff said. “If you can get outs as a pitcher in any way, if you can just get the job done and scratch out wins; that’s kind of my main priority right now. So I’m trying to just keep it there rather than anything self-oriented.”

As the Salukis raced to dogpile Maddia Groff on Friday, her own reaction was very muted for someone who had just completed the best single-game performance in school history. Her subdued response reflects her selfless nature, as well as her poise despite being as new as possible to the college game.

“Maddia’s sort of a reluctant star,” Sewell said. “…If you see it on film, Maddia just kind of reacts like, ho hum, threw a perfect game. And then Rylinn and the team get out there to kinda dogpile her, and she just hugs everybody and smiles. She’s that humble, she just kind of takes it in stride.”

Playing for a mid-major university almost creates a default chip on a player’s shoulder. Having just been part of a likely multi-year recruiting process, many freshmen feel a need to prove themselves on that stage after perhaps being overlooked by bigger schools.

“I think some of them have been told maybe they’re not Power Five ready, or they’re not big enough, or this, that, or the other,” Sewell said. “All of them kind of channeled that into what you saw on Friday.”

It’s clear from the results that the transition from high school to Division I softball has not fazed the Groff twins. A big part of that has been the culture of Saluki softball, providing a welcoming environment for them before they even took the field.

“All the girls on the team have been amazing,” Rylinn Groff said. “And so when we go out there, we feel comfortable and we know that they have our backs and we have theirs.”

Maddia Groff said, “There’s just that comfort factor that, no matter what, she’s behind the plate, I’m out there and we’ve got each other.

Not only do the sisters have each other to provide a sense of familiarity, but fellow Omaha-native Katherine Johnson – who the Groffs have been playing softball with since they were nine years old – is along for the ride as well. The freshman outfielder went to Millard North High School, breaking several career records at her school and receiving All-State recognition.

“I think they have a little mini family within the big family,” Sewell said. “To come as far as the three of them did, and to really trust us with the next four years was a big deal for us.”

Sewell recognized what looks to be a standout freshman class, looking beyond the headline-grabbing Groff twins. She noted Johnson starting in right field on Friday and Sunday as an example of the new players’ ability to impact the game.

“Katherine’s gonna be a star too,” Sewell said. “On the hitting side, it’s pretty difficult to get thrown out there, but she played in some big games this weekend.”

Coming into a program the caliber of SIU might prove daunting for the freshman class looking to follow up an NCAA Tournament run, but this year’s class is plenty ready to make a statement and help take the team to the next level.

“We’re gonna put that whole freshman class out there in some way,” Sewell said. “The Groffs are used to being in big games, as is Katherine Johnson, so it’s not unusual for any of those freshmen to go out and play a big [game].”

While there is still a long season ahead, the Groff twins are still taking it one week at a time. It’s hard to improve on perfection, but they, along with all of Saluki softball, looks to build itself up as it heads into a campaign to defend its Missouri Valley Conference championship from the 2023 season.

“I’m just really happy that we get the chance to be on a team like this, and I think we can really surprise people this year,” Maddia Groff said. “I just love that feeling and feeling like my teammates have my back and I have their back.”

Managing Editor 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.

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