Daily Egyptian

2015-16: The comeback year of Saluki Athletics

By Sean Carley, @SCarleyDE

Over the last five years, the magic that had put Southern Illinois University on the map in mid-major athletics began to fade.

A basketball program that had made multiple Sweet 16 runs within a decade dropped to the cellar of the Missouri Valley Conference along with the football team that was once a Missouri Valley Football Conference power. These two teams served as a small part of an entire athletic department that had fallen on hard times.

This year may be remembered as the year that SIU experienced its worst budget crisis and social tumult in recent history, but Saluki athletics gave students and fans alike a light in the dark year. Two conference championships, three postseason appearances and numerous fallen records later, the 2015-16 academic year has given Saluki fans life again and reason for optimism.

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Even better, many of these teams are returning key players, leaving the ingredients for continued success in place.

Let’s start with the hoopers on the hardwood.

Seven years of failing to top a .500 record took the energy out of the Dawg Pound, leaving more seats empty than filled for men’s basketball games.

With a team pieced together with junior college players to fill the gaps after five players transferred out, MVC Coach of the Year Barry Hinson led his team to its best record (22-10, 11-7 MVC) since 2006-07 and likely would’ve seen the postseason if Illinois had a state budget.

MORE: SIU rejects postseason basketball

While Anthony Beane leaves a sizable void in the lineup, four other starters and three key reserves are coming back and should be able to build on the team’s success this year.

As impressive as the men’s team’s season was, the women built their own success in 2015-16. Cindy Stein deserves as much credit as any Saluki coach, turning a 5-26 team into a 20-13 team in just three seasons while earning women’s basketball’s first postseason appearance in nine years. 

The women may have a tough time adjusting with leading scorer Cartaesha Macklin and leading rebounder Dyana Pierre leaving, but they will have All-MVC guard Rishonda Napier returning along with most of its regular players.

Another indoor court sport made history as well.

Coach Justin Ingram led SIU volleyball to its best record in program history (23-10, 14-4 MVC) and was rewarded with the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Volleyball’s lone senior this season, middle hitter Taylor Pippen, is playing professionally in Spain after rewriting SIU record books with the all-time records for career attack percentage at .345 and block assists with 426.

Much like the men’s basketball team, with only Pippen leaving after this season, Saluki volleyball should be a force next year as well.

Out on the diamond, both bat-and-ball sports are closing in on their best seasons in recent history, too.

Maturation of the young Saluki baseball team has it on pace for its best season since 2008. The diamond Dawgs already have 16 more wins this season than they did all of last season with seven games left.

The same maturation, as well as a National Freshman of the Year candidate, have powered SIU softball to an 11-win improvement, nearly matching the winning percentage of the 2012 team that was one game away from making the NCAA tournament.

Both baseball and softball have significantly more underclassmen than upperclassmen.

Maybe the most impressive seasons, though, came from the lesser-known teams on campus, thanks to some strong senior performances.

Perhaps the most thrilling performance all year was the women’s swim and dive team’s half-point victory over eight-peat conference champion Missouri State. Four days of swimming came down to less than a second’s difference in the final race.

Women’s swim and dive was not the only team to upset a perennial champion.

On April 26, Saluki men’s golf upset the eight-peat Shockers of Wichita State earning its first NCAA regional appearance in the process.

Track and field has been leaving its mark on the conference as well, most notably senior thrower DeAnna Price.

Price has been placing her name all over the storied records of SIU track and field, recently breaking the American collegiate record in the hammer throw, earning her spot on the Bowerman award watch list for top female collegiate track athlete.

Both men’s and women’s tennis teams experienced success amid rumors of the programs being axed because of budget cuts. After going 6-16 the season before, men’s tennis went 14-5 and split the MVC regular season championship while the women’s team went 16-12 and made the MVC tournament finals.

The one team that fell short of success this season — football — made a change at the helm, hiring former quarterback Nick Hill as head coach, and is now optimistic for next season.

Despite going 3-8, there was still things for fans to be proud of with quarterback Mark Iannotti breaking the Missouri Valley Football Conference single-season total offense record with 3,911 yards. Linebacker Brandon Williams and tight end Adam Fuehne also earned NFL contracts.

Director of Athletics Tommy Bell deserves some praise of Saluki fans for his accomplishments in his first full year at the position. 

MORE: Bell reflects on his first year

Having to hire a football coach and lead an athletic department while dealing with no state budget is a difficult situation, but Bell has navigated the waters smoothly.

Here’s to hoping 2016-17 keeps up the trend.

Sean Carley can be reached at [email protected] or at 618-536-3307.

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