By Tyler Wooten
Saluki Media Services
The 2013 Track & Field season featured two of the finest throwers in SIU’s storied history in seniors J.C. Lambert and Kim Fortney, who ironically were both set to play different sports at other schools before they decided to come to Southern Illinois.
The duo are classic examples of coach John Smith’s eye for talent, potential and work ethic. He spotted Fortney — of Hindsboro, Ill. — and Lambert — of nearby Harrisburg — under the recruiting radar, and the duo became part of a golden age of Saluki throwers,.
Lambert had already agreed to play football at McKendree College before meeting Coach Smith.
“I saw J.C. at a high school meet and I talked to him about walking on,” Smith said. “His numbers in high school weren’t really that outstanding, but I liked the way he moved around for a big guy. I was at the Olympic trials in 2008, and J.C. calls and says, ‘Coach, you still got a spot on the team? I think I’m done with football. I think I wanna be a thrower.’”
In his first year at SIU, Lambert qualified for the NCAA West Regional, and during his sophomore season, Lambert won three Missouri Valley Conference titles and two All-American honors. His junior season yielded another All-American honor and two more MVC crowns.
The first half of his senior year in 2012 was spectacular, as Lambert earned NCAA Runner-Up in the weight throw — when he fell within two-and-a-half inches of a national championship. Then came a setback. A bout of Rocky Mountain spotted fever — a serious illness passed by ticks — sidelined Lambert for the 2012 outdoor season.
In 2013, however, Lambert was back in prime condition and ready to dominate. In his first meet at the Vanderbilt Black and Gold on March 22, he shattered the all-time SIU and MVC hammer throw records by more than two feet each. That record didn’t stand long, however. With his winning toss of 67.22m (220-06) in the hammer throw at the MVC Outdoor Championships, Lambert broke his old SIU and MVC records, along with the MVC Championships record.
“My goals changed all throughout the year,” Lambert said. “Once I got healthy, I wanted to be top-five (at nationals), that was my original goal. Then it was top-three and then I was like, ‘I can win this thing.’ That was the plan the whole year, of course, is to win.”
At the national meet, Lambert finished in fifth place in the hammer throw for his fifth and final All-American certificate — the highest-ever finish by a Saluki male in the event, the highest Saluki male finish outdoors since 1992, the highest finish for a Saluki male thrower since 1988 and the most All-American honors by a Saluki thrower in SIU history. The last note is the most significant, as the previous owner of that distinction was Saluki Hall of Fame member and two-time Olympic silver medalist George Woods.
Lambert also owns two all-time SIU records (weight throw and hammer throw), three Missouri Valley Conference records (all-time weight throw, all-time and conference championships hammer throw records), won seven MVC individual championships, qualified for the national meet six times across both the indoor and outdoor seasons, was named the 2012 MVC Indoor Most Valuable Field Athlete and played an instrumental part in the 2012 men’s MVC indoor championship team — which claimed their first team title in 20 years. Lambert has made a name for himself in the SIU record books at the national meet alone, scoring a remarkable 17 NCAA meet points over the course of his career indoors and outdoors.
“When I first came here I had no idea I would be this successful,” Lambert said. “The toughest part has been the past year, because of my sickness, and I’m happy that I made it through all of that to keep everything going and still be able to throw far and compete at a national level.”
Kim Fortney’s rise to become one of SIU’s most successful throwers is equally remarkable. She had an offer to play rugby at Eastern Illinois, and with modest high school throwing marks, collegiate track did not appear to be an option.
“I was a four-sport athlete in high school,” Fortney said. “I never really liked to do one thing over the other, I did everything. Track was my side-sport.”
“Kim is the definition of the overachiever,” Smith said. “Kim was a 31-foot high school shot putter and was low in the discus, too — basically, the kind of marks that when I see them, I just throw it in the garbage, and to be quite honest, I don’t bother to go any further past that.”
However, in Fortney’s situation, it did go further.
“I had a high school buddy who kept telling me for three years, ‘I have this girl on my summer softball team, I think she’d make an excellent thrower for you,’” Smith said. “He just bugged me and bugged me, so finally I told him she could come and walk-on and I’ll see what I can do.”
“So she came in on a visit,” Smith recalled. “I remember (three-time national champion) Jeneva (McCall) and (two-time All-American) Gwen (Berry) were throwing, and Kim was just standing there looking like she was scared to death watching them throw. She’d never seen anything like that.”
Fortney walked on, scored in the conference meet as a freshman, and improved in the shot put from 31 to 47 feet.
“That was a monumental jump,” Smith said. “She has the distinction of improving more in the shot from high school to a college career than anybody I’ve ever coached. She went from 31 to 55 feet (her current PR). People don’t do that.”
Fortney qualified for the NCAA West Regional each year and was named All-MVC four times across the indoor and outdoor seasons in both shot puts and the weight and hammer throws, and she won two of her three career second-team All-American certificates at the NCAA Championships last week in the shot put and hammer throw. In the latter, Fortney fell heartbreakingly short of advancing to finals in the hammer throw (10th place, 62.36m/204-07) and a chance for first-team honors. On the scoresheet it’s listed at one inch, but it was even closer than that.
“To miss finals by two centimeters is gonna stay with me for a long time,” Fortney said. “I fought and fought in the hammer for four years. I’m not really built for it, I’ve got a big upper body. To get 10th in the country is nothing to frown upon. It’s disappointing, but at the same time I was 10th-best in the country that day.”
Fortney ranks in the top-10 in every throwing category in Saluki history and the top-five in three.
“I’ve learned so much in four years,” Fortney said. “Coming from nothing, I had everything to gain. I think that when you compete like that, you have nothing to lose. When you have nothing to lose you have everything to gain, and that’s what I did.”
The sun will finally set on the Saluki careers for both Fortney and Lambert — in addition to fellow 2013 All-American DeAnna Price after one more competition. All three will compete at the USA Track and Field Championships this week in Des Moines, Iowa.
By Scott Gierman
Saluki Media Services
Being shut out in its final two games of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament was a fitting end to a frustrating 2013 season for the Saluki baseball team. Following a 2012 campaign that ended with a 31-28 record and an unexpected run to the conference title game, many observers expected this year’s team to be a serious contender for the Valley title.
At first glance, it’s difficult to isolate one area that led to a 25-33 final record this year. I think a deeper analysis of the statistics could provide some interesting answers, however. I admit drawing inspiration from the movie Moneyball, which we watched on the bus ride to the conference tournament.
The beginning of Moneyball shows the Oakland Athletics in a similar position to the Salukis entering the 2013 season. A’s General Manager Billy Beane, portrayed by Brad Pitt, had the task of replacing three free agents, including Jason Giambi, who was at the time the best offensive first baseman in baseball. Similarly, Coach Henderson and SIU had to replace two starting seniors and first baseman Chris Serritella after he was selected in the fourth round of last summer’s draft.
Bean recognized that it was impossible to replace his star. However, by viewing the players as a combination of their on-base percentages, it could be done. The Salukis couldn’t replace Serritella’s .461 on-base percentage, one of the highest in school history. Instead they needed to replace the total on-base percentage of the three non-returning starters, catcher Brian Bajer, outfielder Jordan Sivertsen and Serritella. Those three had a combined on-base percentage of roughly 1.155 in 2012. That averages to .385 for each hitter.
To remain as successful on offense this season, SIU needed first baseman Ryan Casillas, catcher Matt Jones and a combination of Donny Duschinsky, Brock Harding, Nick Johnson and Wes Neece in the outfield to put together a combined on-base percentage in the realm of 1.155. Jones and Casillas posted nearly identical on-base percentages of .375 and .374, respectively. However, the aforementioned senior outfielders combined for a .311 on-base percentage. That gap in on-base percentage equaled less runners and, in turn, less runs this season.
Speaking of runs, there is a relatively simple formula used by baseball statisticians to predict what a team’s record should be using only runs scored and runs allowed. The formula, referred to as the Pythagorean Therom of Baseball, illustrates if a team was particularly lucky or unlucky if its win total is not in line with the predicted win total.
This year’s SIU team was outscored by its opponents by a margin of 285-283 runs in the regular season. The Pythagorean formula calculates that those run totals should’ve translated to a 27-28 record. Instead, SIU finished the regular season with a 24-31 mark. That suggests bad breaks cost SIU roughly three wins this year. Statistically speaking, Evansville was the only team in the Valley with worse luck, as the Aces’ win total was four wins fewer than its Pythagorean prediction.
SIU got off to a 9-11 start despite outscoring its opponents by a margin of 103-91 in those games. During that stretch, Southern’s pitchers had a 3.55 ERA compared to its opponents’ 4.23 ERA and also batted 30 points higher than its opponents. After 20 games, the Salukis were already two wins below their Pythagorean prediction. The inability to turn those solid stats into wins seemed to set the tone for the rest of the season.
I should point out that what a statistician refers to as “luck” is not necessarily the wind blowing the wrong way or a ball taking a bad hop. In this case, bad luck means losing close games. SIU was 12-18 in games decided by two runs or less. However, in the case of close games, as the saying goes, you create your own luck. It comes down to things like moving runners over and producing a clutch hit with runners in scoring position. Those are two areas where Southern struggled this spring.
Looking ahead to next season, Southern started a junior at every infield position as well as catcher in 2013, so the Salukis will again return an experienced team. SIU will again need to replace three starting position players as the entire starting outfield graduates. Of the six outfielders who started at least one game this spring, five were seniors. Rising senior Donny Duschinsky is the only returner from that group. He started 16 games in right field. This time it will be Austin Montgomery’s .416 on-base percentage as the big number that the Salukis need to replace. But for now, we can wait until next season to crunch those numbers.
By Scott Gierman
Saluki Media Services
Last Thursday marked a critical milestone in the history of the Saluki Baseball program when the SIU Board of Trustees approved a full renovation of Abe Martin Field.
Construction will begin in June, and when the facility re-opens next spring as Richard “Itch” Jones Stadium, along with the renamed Dan Callahan clubhouse, the hopes and dreams of so many people associated with the baseball program will finally be fulfilled.
With a new playing surface and lights, plus a new grandstand, concourse and press box, the facility will undergo a complete transformation.
The project will cost approximately $4 million and will be funded by private donations that have come from more than 100 Saluki baseball alumni, plus many more supporters of the program. Each dollar raised will be matched by the University.
This weekend’s series against conference-leading Illinois State will be the final games played at the current Abe Martin Field, a facility which has existed relatively unchanged during the past half century.
When Abe Martin Field was built in 1964, it was among the best college baseball facilities in the Midwest.
Long-time Saluki radio voice Mike Reis recalls his first experience calling a game as an SIU student at Abe Martin Field.
“The first game I remember broadcasting was in 1976 against Oklahoma,” Reis said. “It was windy as hell, and that was the time before Abe Martin Field had a press box. It had cafeteria tables at the top of the bleachers behind home plate.”
“Still, I can’t recall anyone who had a nicer park in the Missouri Valley Conference in 1976 than SIU had,” Reis continued. “Southern likely had the best facility in the Midwest.”
A press box was added in 1986 and was built by Coach Jones himself in less than one week so that the Salukis could host the MVC Tournament.
“Itch got together with his friends in Herrin,” Reis explained. “They built it on the ground at Abe Martin Field. Then they all picked it up and walked up the bleachers with the press box, and then put it on top of the platform, nailed it to the platform and voila. There’s a press box. Believe it or not, it was one of the better press boxes in the league. That kind of tells you about the facilities at that time.
“It was one of the more hilarious parades I’ve ever seen, up the bleachers at Abe Martin Field carrying a press box, and Itch Jones wearing hammers on his belt to get to the top with nails in his mouth to nail down a press box for his championship team.”
By the time current head coach Ken Henderson joined the Saluki coaching staff for the 1991 season, Abe Martin field was comparable to the other facilities in the Missouri Valley Conference. Since then, however, every team in the league has upgraded its baseball facility.
“There weren’t the big facilities that you have now in college baseball,” Henderson said of his first few years in Carbondale. “In our league, Wichita State was the only big-time facility. Everybody else had very mediocre facilities. It was okay when I got here, but we’ve been bypassed.”
The new facility will also incorporate The Hill down the right field line, which Henderson believes is key to re-establishing the big-event atmosphere at the park.
“I have a great respect for the history and the tradition of the program,” Henderson said. “That means a lot to me. I remember when The Hill was packed and the atmosphere was big-time. Our fans support us very well right now, but we have to get the students back and let them get a feel for what The Hill was like.”
Hundreds of fans would routinely fill The Hill for home games. Their loud support of the Salukis and proximity to the visiting bullpen provided a huge home-field advantage. Henderson said that is what sticks out most in his mind from the first games he coached in Carbondale.
“I sat in the dugout and couldn’t believe the atmosphere on The Hill, how many people there were and how rowdy they were,” Henderson said. “I’ll never forget that, and I couldn’t believe how much fun those students were having.”
When it comes time to say goodbye, Reis, who has likely witnessed more games at Abe Martin Field than anyone else, said there aren’t any physical keepsakes that he would like to take with him.
“Much like McAndrew Stadium, the memories and the people are what you remember most,” Reis said. “The rest of it, I’m glad it’s gone. I’ll still have the memories of Abe. Many of my favorite memories have come at Abe, both as a student and as a broadcaster. I’ll have those no matter what.”
By Bill Ford
Saluki Media Services
Brittney Lang is her own toughest critic.
The Southern Illinois senior threw one of the best games of her career on April 20 against Creighton. To hear her reflect on the one-run loss to the Missouri Valley Conference leading Bluejays, however, you’d never guess she had a good outing.
“It’s about whether we win or lose,” Lang said. “Creighton was really a tough loss because we were ahead. That one really hurt.”
Lang fanned a career-high 13 batters and held Creighton scoreless on three hits through the first seven innings before the Bluejays struck for six runs in the eighth inning to take a 6-5 win.
Despite the loss, the Crieghton game was one in a series of games over the last month that the SIU senior was dominant. Prior to the Creighton game, Lang’s career high in strikeouts was seven. She has eclipsed that mark three times since.
“Really, since Wichita, she has been very good,” said SIU head coach Kerri Blaylock. “I think she’s been more mechanically correct and she has been more confident. She has understood what kind of pitches we want her to throw with two strikes, as opposed to leaving the ball too much on the plate.”
Since coming into the program four years ago as a player Blaylock described as, “the skinniest thing I ever saw throwing gas,” Lang has blossomed over the past two seasons. She has won 11 or more games the last two years and has led the team in strikeouts both seasons.
“When she came in, she had trouble finding the strike zone. She threw the ball hard, but it was kind of all over,” Blaylock said. “She has developed different pitches. Her changeup is very serviceable now. She has developed two other pitches besides being just a fastball-type pitcher.”
Though her command has improved over the years, Blaylock said one thing has always been a constant with Lang — she is always tough on herself. A perfectionist with a 3.97 GPA, Blaylock said Lang often has a tough time accepting mistakes.
“Kerri gives me something to work on each summer,” Lang said. “Last summer, it was just keeping my composure and staying the same throughout the entire game. Not letting down one inning.”
Blaylock said Lang has been a trooper through an up-and-down season for SIU. The senior had to log more innings than normal early in the year while sophomore Katie Bertelsen rehabbed an injury, never once complaining.
“She’s hung in there,” Blaylock said. “She’s had some tough losses, but she has come right back and she has had some big wins for us.”
Lang’s perseverance is paying of for SIU as it closes out 2013. Entering the final weekend of MVC play with its entire pitching staff intact, SIU has been on the rise in the last half of Valley play. After struggling to start conference play, Southern enters the final week of the regular season with a shot at one of the top four seeds in the Valley Tournament.
“I think anybody can win the conference tournament,” Lang said. “I’m just excited because I think our team can win it.”
By Tom Weber
Saluki Media Services
With Spring Ball in the books and just over three months until the start of training camp, here are some observations about Saluki Football.
1. The Salukis are loaded at tailback, even though Iowa transfer Mika’il McCall is the team’s lone returnee at the position. He averaged 3.8 yards per carry last season, splitting time with Steve Strother. The coaching staff bolstered the running back spot by bringing in JUCO transfer Tay Willis, Georgia transfer Ken Malcolme, and adding Oregon State transfer Malcolm Agnew, who arrives this summer. The power-running McCall rose to the challenge with a strong spring season, adding some nuance to his running style, and will enter training camp as the incumbent starter. Willis is a smallish back, but he showed excellent quickness, balance and surprising power during scrimmages, and could carve out a role for himself as a change-of-pace runner. You can see why Malcolme was a one-time starter at an SEC school — he is a big-time athlete. There weren’t many holes for him behind the second and third-team offensive lines this spring, however. It will be interesting to see how Agnew fits in. He rushed for 223 yards and three TDs in his first game at Oregon State but his two-year career was slowed by frequent hamstring problems. His brother, Ray Agnew, remains a road-grading force at fullback.
2. Of all the position groups, the offensive line needs to make the most improvement between now and the start of the season, if SIU hopes to compete for a conference championship. The good news is there are some promising pieces. Junior Tanner Crum is rock-solid at center. The coaching staff really likes redshirt freshman Jake Notario at right guard, where he plays with a nasty disposition. Oklahoma transfer Victor Craven, who started the last four games at right tackle in 2012, is improving. The left side of the offensive line was beset with injuries to returning starters LG Nate Haremza and LT Ethan Wirth during the spring, and that hindered the offense. Wirth transferred from Toledo right before the 2012 season and wound up starting nine games. He’s bulked up to 300 pounds during the off-season and his return to health in the fall is critical. Depth is a concern.
3. SIU has some potent weapons in its wide receiving corps. Junior speedster LaSteven McKinney caught 43 passes last year and had an excellent spring. He’s becoming more than just a slot receiver and is now a player who can vertically stretch the defense. Senior John Lantz is a reliable possession receiver with 52 career catches. Shawn Mitchell played as a true freshman last season but made little impact. That should change in 2013 after the speedy wideout made good strides during the spring. Third-year sophomore Josh Sullivan made some big plays in practice and could be in the mix. Redshirt freshman Billy Reed was one of the most consistent receivers in the spring. The coaches chart every pass and he rarely committed a drop.
4. Coordinator Kalen DeBoer finally has the weapons at tight end for his 12 personnel offense (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR). All-American MyCole Pruitt is one of the best players in the country at the FCS level and should lead the team in receiving. Look for SIU to line Pruitt up in the slot and move him around so teams can’t key on him. Adam Fuehne made some brilliant catches during the spring, and at 6-foot-7, is a nightmare matchup for most defenders. The coaches thought they were in a similar position last year in terms of tight end depth before Fuehne broke his hand. The Salukis need Dalton Morgan to get healthy and provide depth.
5. The Salukis will go only so far as quarterback Kory Faulkner can lead them. The fifth-year senior is 8-10 in his career as a starter and will turn 23-years-old in August. Faulkner is a big, athletic kid who can make all the necessary throws. The coaches want him to manage the offense and get the ball to their playmakers. I think he is more than capable. No quarterback on the team reads defenses as quickly as Faulkner. When he has time to throw, he usually delivers the ball on target. Faulkner had a knee injury last summer, and I believe that affected his mechanics during the 2012 season. He never looked completely comfortable moving around in the pocket. He seemed more mobile and confident about the knee this spring. Faulkner made some excellent throws in the spring game, but he also threw a couple of bad interceptions. If he can eliminate the major mistakes, I think he’s poised to have a big season for SIU. Redshirt freshman Ryan West had a strong spring and really pushed Faulkner. That was good to see. Sophomore Matt Vincent has a lot of physical tools, and he’s a gunslinger, but he must cut down on the interceptions and show more pocket presence. Senior A.J. Hill has the tools to take over the offense, if needed.
6. All three starters graduated on the defensive line, but the way SIU rotates its players, there are three returnees with plenty of experience in Bubba Schweigert’s complex 3-4 system. Sophomore DE Adam Brandt had an excellent spring and looks significantly improved over last season, when he made eight tackles as a reserve. Junior Blake Miller was productive in 2012 with 29 tackles and two sacks, and JUCO transfer Kitray Solomon showed a burst to the quarterback this spring, as the Salukis look for someone to replace the 13.5 sacks generated by ends Eze Obiora and Ken Boatright. The coaches are hoping sophomore TJ Beelen can take over at nose tackle for Kayon Swanson. They also have Raysean Golden, a Coffeyville transfer, who will arrive this summer. He had 27 tackles as a freshman last season and has three years of eligibility remaining.
7. Inside linebacker Bryan Presume led the team in tackles last year and continues to improve. The senior is the cornerstone of the linebacker corps. ILB Jordan Poole had a good spring and there is plenty of depth with players such as Taylon Hunter, Cameron James and Houston Walker, who all have playing experience. Cory Lee started every game at outside linebacker last year and made 36 tackles. Although OLB Tyler Williamson didn’t start, he put up big numbers, including 5.5 tackles for loss. The Salukis always seem to re-load at linebacker, never rebuild, and this year should be no different.
8. Coach Lennon is thrilled with the team’s depth at cornerback. In fact, it’s the best he’s felt about the position since he’s been at Southern. Senior Terrell Wilson missed half of spring ball with an injury, but he’s the team’s top cover man. The Salukis brought in three talented transfers — Toledo’s Keith Suggs and JUCOs Chris Davis and Brandon Willingham. The icing on the cake has been the improvement of returning junior Courtney Richmond, who had a strong spring. Southern is deep at safety with returning starters D.J. Cameron and Luke Thuston, plus tested reserves Anthony Thompson and David Boatright.
9. Senior Austin Pucylowski was booming his punts as usual this spring, but the kicking spot remains a question mark, where Southern had four players in spring ball vying for the jobs of kickoffs and field goal duty. In addition to returnees Austin Johnson, Chris Adams and Jackson MacLachlan, the Salukis added Thomas Kinney of Winona College. He has a strong leg, gets good lift on his kicks and was pretty consistent until missing a field goal in the spring game.
10. Former Saluki OLB Jayson DiManche is anxiously awaiting this week’s NFL Draft, which begins Thursday. I spoke to him today and he expects to be either a Day 3 pick or priority free agent. He ran a 4.53 in the 40 at Northwestern’s Pro Day on March 5, which is a superb number for a 230-pound athlete. He also long-jumped 11 feet and bench pressed 225 pounds 24 times. His tape speaks for itself, as he led the team with 8.0 sacks and 15.0 tackles for loss. Last Wednesday, one pro team flew him in for a visit, and three other teams have put him through private workouts. Some teams like him as a strong-side 4-3 OLB lining up over the tight end, while some 3-4 teams think he could play either inside or outside at the pro level. I also talked to draft-eligible seniors Ken Boatright and Eze Obiora, who expect to sign free agent contracts. Boatright ran a 4.77 in the 40 at Northwestern and had a 4.27 short shuttle. He weighs 255 pounds and projects to either a 4-3 DE or OLB. He’s had several private workouts. Obiora ran a 4.84 in the 40 at SIU’s pro day at 244 pounds. One team held a private workout and several others have called.
By Bill Ford
Saluki Media Services
Southern Illinois softball coach Kerri Blaylock remembers sitting in the dugout 10 years ago at Alabama’s Rhoads Stadium and looking out at the field in awe.
Saluki shortstop Jenny Doehring had just hit a towering home run over the scoreboard in left-center field to give SIU a 1-0 lead over the No. 22-ranked Crimson Tide.
“There is an elephant on their scoreboard, and it went over the elephant,” Blaylock said. “I’ll never forget that moment. It was like, ‘Wow.’ It was pretty special.”
The Salukis shut out Alabama 4-0 on its home turf to move to 7-0 on a young 2003 season. The Crimson Tide exacted some revenge the following day in the 11-inning Bama Bash championship game, but SIU left Tuscaloosa, Ala., with an 8-1 record and more than a little confidence.
“That is the first time I felt that group could be really good,” Blaylock said of the Bama Bash. “Then we just continued to do things that hadn’t been done before.”
The 2003 season was groundbreaking for SIU in every sense of the word. Not only was it the first year the Salukis played at Charlotte West Stadium, but it was a year of numerous firsts as SIU softball rose to national prominence similar to the Saluki men’s basketball during its magical 2001-02 run.
The 2003 Salukis went 39-14 overall and 18-6 in the Missouri Valley Conference, earned the first at-large NCAA Tournament Bid in program history and won SIU softball’s first NCAA Tournament games. Southern also posted three wins over ranked opponents and made an appearance in the Top 25 for the first time in program history. The 2003 Salukis finished the season with SIU’s first run to the NCAA Sweet 16 and finished the year ranked No. 22/23 in the nation.
It started on a mid-February day in Alabama, but Blaylock pointed out several milestones that made the 2003 season memorable. One was a midseason trip to Nebraska to take on Creighton and No. 6 Nebraska. SIU came out of the trip with a 2-1 series win over the Bluejays and a 2-1 upset win over the Cornhuskers.
“We hadn’t ever won two out of three at Creighton. Then we go over to Nebraska and beat Nebraska,” Blaylock said. “That’s when I really started to feel that we could be pretty special.”
Blaylock pointed out SIU’s 2-0 win over Creighton in the series opener as one that epitomized the season. Bluejays pitcher Tammy Nielsen struck out 19 Saluki batters on the day, but Southern found a way to survive. Saluki ace Amy Harre pitched a shutout and freshman Katie Louis came up with a huge 2-run home run in the ninth inning to win it.
“Their pitcher struck us out 19 times, but we still won because we didn’t quit,” Blaylock said. “That was the thing about that team. We just never quit. Ever.”
Another big moment for the 2003 Salukis was the team’s 2-1 series win on the road over eventual MVC champion Illinois State. The Salukis picked up a pair of 1-0 wins in a doubleheader sweep of the Redbirds with Louis and Doehring each hitting solo home runs, and Harre and senior Renee Mueller throwing shutouts.
“The pitching was really, really good that year,” Blaylock said of Harre, Mueller and Katie Kloess. “Those three kids really allowed us to compete with people at all different levels. We were also very good defensively. We didn’t score a ton of runs, but we were so confident most of the time.”
After toiling in “others receiving votes” territory most of the season, the series win at ISU pushed SIU into the Top 25 for the first time in school history. Southern suffered an early exit in the MVC Tournament, but it didn’t derail SIU’s postseason hopes thanks to its strong RPI and those marquee wins over Alabama and Nebraska. SIU learned via ESPN News they earned the first-ever at-large NCAA Tournament bid by a MVC team.
“It’s more difficult to get an at-large berth because you have to prove you’re good over the whole season, and we did that all year,” Blaylock told the media after the selection show in 2003. “It took a while to get back to a Regional and I want to enjoy this and hopefully make it a tradition.”
The No. 6 seed Salukis opened the Tuscaloosa, Ala., regional with a 5-2 upset win over No. 3 seed UMass. While the win was a huge step for the program, it paled in comparison to the second game when SIU took down No. 17 Stanford, 6-1.
“We went up 6-0 and it was the fifth or sixth inning. They have two Olympians on their team. I’m sitting there looking out on the field, thinking, ‘Wow,’” Blaylock said. “I say something to (assistant coach) Buddy Foster about it, and Buddy says, ‘Shut up Kerri. We are in the middle of the game.’ But to me, it was something I had to soak in. You don’t know when you are going to get it again.”
SIU followed with a 7-4 loss to Alabama, but rebounded with a 6-1 win over UMass to earn a spot in the Regional championship game against the Crimson Tide. SIU fought Alabama through four scoreless innings before the Crimson Tide touched Harre for a pair of runs in the fifth and eventually took the 2-0 win.
“We competed right to the end,” Blaylock said. “Now that I think back on it, being that close to the World Series — you just don’t get those opportunities often in your coaching career.”
Saturday, Southern will recognize the 10-year anniversary of the Sweet 16 season between games of its doubleheader against Missouri State. Blaylock said 14 of the 16 players from the team will be in attendance for the reunion.
Blaylock said the 2003 roster was a culmination of several years of recruiting before SIU had a nice stadium or a postseason tradition to use as a recruiting tool.
“I recruited all of those kids before (Charlotte West Stadium) was ever built. They all came here on trust,” Blaylock said. “We had that old terrible field that was out by the road, and they came just because of the program, with the faith that something hopefully would happen.”
Something did happen in 2003, and it kept happening. SIU went to five-consecutive NCAA Tournaments between 2003 and 2007, all of which came via at-large bids. Blaylock said 2003 elevated SIU’s status from being well-known regionally to being known on the national softball stage.
“It was a springboard. We beat teams that we had never beaten before ranking-wise. It put us on the map,” Blaylock said. “When you are beating an Alabama and a Stanford team with multiple Olympians, it kind of puts it into perspective. It gave us the confidence and the notoriety.
By Scott Gierman
Saluki Media Services
Upon first glance, Cody Forsythe may not look like one of the most dominant college pitchers in the Midwest. Listed at 6-foot tall, the skinny southpaw with a scraggly red beard isn’t the biggest, strongest or hardest thrower on the Salukis’ roster, but there’s one thing that sets him apart.
“He’s not physically intimidating,” SIU Coach Ken Henderson said of the senior pitcher. “But his makeup, his heart and competitiveness are off the charts. He shows up every day to kick your butt. That’s his mentality. He has great command and knows how to pitch, but the difference is his competitiveness.”
Anyone who has been able to watch Forsythe pitch a few times starts to realize why he’s so good. His ability to consistently throw strikes is remarkable. In more than 50 innings of work this season, he has issued only nine walks. During his sophomore campaign, he issued just 11 free passes in 103 innings.
“It all comes down to spotting up every single pitch, not missing any spots and trying to stay consistent throughout the game,” Forsythe said.
For the last three years, he has been the definition of consistent. When pitching on normal rest, the senior has lasted at least five full innings in 35-consecutive starts. That’s more starts than all but a couple active Missouri Valley Conference pitchers have made in their entire careers.
On the topic of career numbers, Forsythe is rewriting SIU’s record book. By the time he finishes his career at the end of this season, he will most likely be the school’s all-time leader in games started and innings pitched. Roughly halfway through the season, he has thrown just over 50 innings, putting him on pace to be the first Saluki pitcher to throw 100 innings in three-consecutive years. Last year he became the only pitcher in school history to do it twice in a career. He is also within striking distance of the top five for career strikeouts, which is pretty impressive for a pitcher who scouts wouldn’t rush to label a strikeout pitcher.
Forsythe strides for perfection on the mound and has been pretty close to it in his first two conference starts of the year. In two Valley starts, he has allowed one earned run and struck out 11 batters in 17 innings of work. That equates to a 0.53 ERA, which lowers his ERA to 1.40 in 16 conference starts since the start of his sophomore year.
“I think I start to hit my stride once we get farther along in the season,” Forsythe said of his success in the conference schedule. “I start to get more in my rhythm, and my routine gets locked in. I don’t try to do anything different. I just get more locked in for those games. I put extra pressure on those games because I want to win those games more than anything.”
When the coaching staff decided to move talented sophomore Sam Coonrod into the coveted Friday spot of the rotation to start the season, Forsythe moved to Saturdays but had no complaints.
“He didn’t care,” Pitching Coach P.J. Finigan said. “He’d definitely love to pitch on Fridays, but he just wants the ball, and he just wants to do what’s best for this team. That’s what we thought was best for the team, so he’s all for it. He’s been a model teammate and a model player throughout his entire time here.”
Forsythe might not have had any time in Carbondale if the late Saluki coach Dan Callahan hadn’t happened to notice Forsythe’s stats four years ago while scouting another player in Kentucky. Henderson, an assistant SIU coach at the time, went with Callahan to look at a position player.
“Coach Cal noticed there was this left-hander who wasn’t pitching that day but had phenomenal numbers,” Henderson said.
The numbers were impressive enough that Callahan drove back down to Kentucky along with then pitching coach Tim Dixon to see Forsythe pitch. It proved to be worth the trip as Forsythe continues to pay dividends for the program.
What about the player the coaches initially went to see play that day?
“I don’t even remember who it was,” Henderson said with a smile. “We only have one guy from Kentucky on the team, so evidently we didn’t like him.”
Finigan took over as pitching coach prior to Forsythe’s sophomore year and said he credits Forsythe’s work ethic and maturity for allowing him to blossom into a first-team All-Conference pitcher.
Finigan is not looking forward to trying to replace Forsythe next season, but for now, he and Saluki fans still have time to enjoy watching him pitch.
“A lot of coaches say they worry about life after somebody,” Finigan said. “For me, it’s going to be life after Cody. That’s probably going to be a tough one when he graduates.”