Salukis start tourney today

By Tony McDaniel

Saluki softball has not won a Missouri Valley Conference Tournament since 1991, but that could change this weekend.

SIU (28-23, 15-11) will open the 2014 MVC tournament today, and with three straight wins can clinch a birth in the NCAA regionals.

Coach Kerri Blaylock said in this year’s tournament, any team could be crowned champion on Saturday.

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“Honestly, I think you could throw eight of us in a hat, and throw it out there. I really believe any of the eight of us can win it, because we’ve all beaten each other.” Blaylock said. “To me there’s not a clear favorite.”

The Salukis are seeded third in this season’s tournament, and earned themselves a bye in the first round of games. This means SIU will face the winner of Drake University (19-32, 11-14) or Loyola University (22-30, 11-15) in their matchup at 6:35 this evening.

The Salukis swept both Drake and Loyola earlier this season.

If the Salukis face Loyola in the quarterfinal matchup, they may have to deal with Ramblers’ talented lefty pitcher, Brittany Gardner. Gardner leads the conference in strikeouts with 159, and her 2.84 ERA is good for third in the conference.

Blaylock said she is confident her team can get hits on Gardner.

“I think she’s a good pitcher,” Blaylock said. “Coach [Jen] Sewell always gets our kids ready offensively and does a really, really good job giving them a game plan to attack.”

Gardner held the Salukis to just three hits in their matchup against Loyola on April 18, but the next day SIU managed to get nine hits off of her in a 6-2 win.

Senior pitcher and first baseman Taylor Orsburn said the Salukis are capable of defeating either team.

“I would like to face Drake again,” she said. “I think we can beat either team though, I don’t think It really matters.”

Regardless of who the Salukis play first round, Blaylock said junior Katie Bertelsen would start in the circle in the quarterfinals.

If the Salukis can get past Drake or Loyola, Illinois State University (25-27, 17-8) awaits them in the semifinals tomorrow. The Redbirds will play in the comfort of their own stadium as hosts of the MVC tournament.

Illinois State also handed the Salukis their two worst losses of the year on April 5 when the Redbirds beat the Dawgs 20-2 in game one and 11-0 in the second game of a double-header.

If SIU makes it all the way to the final on Saturday, it may have to face regular-season conference champion Wichita State University (34-20).

The Shockers boast a 21-6 record in conference this season. However, two of those losses came at the hands of the Salukis on April 26.

SIU has arguably been one of the hottest teams in the conference as of late.

Since April 1, the Dawgs have gone 13-8 in their run up to the MVC tournament.  A large part of that success has been thanks in part to the two Salukis’ starting pitchers, Orsburn and Bertelsen.

Orsburn’s 2.27 ERA is the best in the conference, and Bertelsen sits in the top-ten of five MVC pitching categories.

The biggest difference the Salukis will have to deal with this weekend is that every game could be the last of the season, since the MVC tournament is a win or go home format.

Senior second baseman Jayna Spivey said her team has to start strong because of the playoff style of the tournament.

“We just have to come out ready to go,” she said. “We can’t let three or four innings go by before we really get into the game.  I thinks that’s one of the biggest things is just coming out ready to go, and being aggressive from the first pitch on.”

This will be the final opportunity the Saluki seniors have to win the conference tournament; Spivey said she doesn’t feel the pressure.

“I think if we go out and play like we’re capable of then we’ll come home with what we want,” Spivey said. “That’s what I’m keeping my focus on.”

Orsburn said she has a good feeling about her team’s chances this weekend.

“I think all of us know that we could do something special,” Orsburn said. “I just have this weird gut feeling that we’re going to win it all.”

Tony McDaniel can be reached at [email protected], @tonymcdanielDE or at 536-3311 ext. 282

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