‘Anything is possible,’ A look into Saluki baseball with fresh faces

Junior infielder Greg Lambert retires from the field Tuesday, April 11, 2017, during the Salukis 4-2 win against Southeast Missouri at Itchy Jones Stadium. (Morgan Timms | @Morgan_Timms)

Morgan Timms

Junior infielder Greg Lambert retires from the field Tuesday, April 11, 2017, during the Salukis’ 4-2 win against Southeast Missouri at Itchy Jones Stadium. (Morgan Timms | @Morgan_Timms)

By Dillon Gilliland, Sports Reporter

With the softball season underway, it is now time to take a look at the upcoming baseball season.

In the 2015 season, the Salukis posted one of their worst finishes in recent years, as they finished in the bottom half of the Missouri Valley Conference with an overall record of 12-46.

The following year, the team improved drastically and finished with almost triple the wins with a 31-25-1 overall record.


Before the 2017 season, Southern was predicted to finish second in the MVC in the preseason polls.

Things did not go according to plan as the team finished fourth in the conference with an overall record of 27-30.

“The expectations were high on us,” head coach Ken Henderson said. “We did not handle that very well.”

The team, however, made it to the MVC tournament but fell short in its journey to a championship, as SIU suffered losses to Wichita State and No. 12 Missouri State.

Now, in 2018, the preseason polls selected SIU to repeat in fourth place.

Henderson said that preseason polls are based off what players are returning and not on talent that is joining the program.

“For us to be picked to finish fourth in the conference is actually quite generous,” Henderson said. “Because there is so much that is unknown about your team.”


The “unknown” refers to the 14 new players that Southern brought to the program this season.

The Salukis’ new players include several freshmen as well as many junior college transfers.

“We do not have very many players returning,” Henderson said. “We’re pretty much a new club.”

Some of the veteran players of the team looked at the fourth-place selection as a chance to prove people wrong.

“We’re always underestimated,” senior pitcher Michael Baird said. “People don’t expect Southern Illinois to win it all, but we have a great group of guys here and anything is possible.”

With a whole set of new players coming in, fans can expect to see a much faster team than in the previous years.

“We will have a little less experience on the team,” senior infielder Connor Kopach said. “But we will have so much more speed out on the bases.”

In the 2017 season, SIU led the MVC with 100 stolen bases. Kopach led the Salukis with an MVC-best 33 steals.

The team is expecting to surpass the 100 mark in the 2018 season and once again lead the MVC in total bases.

“Our team can fly,” Baird said. “We are a really athletic team and it is so fun to watch them run and just see what the human body can do.”

Coach Henderson said with the many players that the team has acquired, they will have more depth in the lineup as well as more options.

“Last year we were thin and couldn’t afford injuries,” Henderson said. “We are deep this year. We have outstanding players in every position and we have a better bullpen.”

Henderson said that the new players coming in will get to see many innings and the crowd should expect to see big things from freshmen infielders J.T. Weber and Grey Epps.

“They’re both going to make significant contributions to the team,” Henderson said. “They’re going to be really big players in this program for the next four years.”

Three players from SIU’s roster were selected to the preseason All-MVC team, including Baird, Kopach and senior pitcher Ryan Netemeyer.

The players stated that they do not feel pressured to perform considering that it is just a preseason selection.

“It’s just a title,” Kopach said. “It doesn’t mean anything until we get out there on the field.”

The team will open their season in Oxford, Alabama on Feb. 16 when they take on Jacksonville State in a three-game series. Baird is expected to get the opening start.

The first game is the most important one for coach Henderson, stating that he is just ready for the season to begin.

“We’re going to take it one game at a time,” Henderson said. “But the only game we have even talked about is the one on Friday.”

The Salukis will stay on the road for the remainder of February until they return home on March 2 to take on Louisiana Monroe in their first home series.

The team will then continue to play non-conference games both on the road and at home, including a three-game series at Itchy Jones Stadium against the University of Illinois beginning on March 16.

Southern will begin conference play on March 30 when they hit the road to take on Illinois State in a three-game series.

For some Salukis, conference play is the most important part of the season.

“Conference games are always really fun,” Baird said. “You have to love MVC play.”

The team all agreed that they all have only one goal in mind: to win the conference and go to the NCAA tournament.

“The goal is always to win it all,” Henderson said. “That will always be the goal and that is what we are here for.”

With the offseason winding down, the team has shown nothing but excitement to get out on the field and play.

“I love this team,” Henderson said. “We just want to go out and have fun.”

Sports reporter Dillon Gilliland can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @DillonGilliland.

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