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MVC Men’s Basketball summer update

By Tom Weber
Saluki Media Services

Summer is barely underway, but what better time to talk Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball, right? The MVC held a media teleconference today in which all 10 head coaches provided updates on their programs. I took plentiful notes, and here’s a rundown on what’s happening across the league.

Paul Lusk, Missouri State: 

Working relentlessly on finishing the schedule. Still have three games to get. Always want to get more home games. In my first two years, we played a very challenging non-conference schedule and were on the road a lot. We’re still relatively young team and would like to play at home…Jarmar Gulley is in workouts and doing light contact work. Structurally, his knee is sound. Now, it’s a matter of getting in basketball shape. To play it safe, he won’t start 5-on-5 until August…Marcus Marshall likes to play, takes his game very seriously and will not rest on his individual accomplishments…You hate to lose a quality program like Creighton. Loyola brings a lot to the table. Porter Moser does an excellent job…We were out-manned a lot on the interior last year. We’ve added some big bodies. The young guys have gotten bigger. Tyler McCullough has tremendous size at 6-10, 253 pounds and a lot of positives with his game. He’s ready from a physical standpoint. Emmanuel Addo is 6-7, 230, a transfer from Northern Colorado. Christian Kirk was our one interior guy last year, and now, it will not be all on him. Bruce Marshall is 6-10 and up to about 230 pounds. We have a roster with some options. We’ve shown we will play young guys. I think it will be more competitive for minutes. Austin Ruder is a freshman who can shoot the basketball, a winner, who understands how to play. Ron Mvoulka is a 6-5 utility guy who can handle and pass. He’s not here this summer and is back in Paris. They all have a chance to come in and make an impact.

Greg Lansing, Indiana State: 

I think Chicago is as highly recruited as any place, maybe over-recruited. There are a lot of good players there. You can’t replace Creighton, but getting back in Chicago is great for the league, but as far as helping us get recruits, I think every team in the conference recruits well in Chicago…Mike Samuels is the biggest guy in the league (6-11, 285). He broke his navicular bone, a bone that does not regularly heal. Doctors took a piece of bone from his shin and surgery went well. It’s a newer procedure. He could return by January at the earliest…Last year, we had guys who were terrific at times, but we didn’t have the numbers we needed to rest them enough. I learned my lessons with scheduling. We’ve added a couple more walk-on bodies to add more depth. Went shorter in practice. We faded a bit down the stretch. When we got beat by Iowa in the NIT, I told them we have to look in the mirror and get better and make competing for a championship a priority…Manny Arop will probably make the Canadian National team and play in the World University games…We use Wichita State’s success in recruiting. You have to get guys who could potentially be high-major type players on your team to compete in this league.

Dan Muller, Illinois State:

A lot of new guys, that would be an understatement. We’re trying to get a feel for what our new guys can do…Nobody can replace Jackie Carmichael in the low post. I would be surprised if he’s not drafted. We have John Jones (6-9, 260) and some guys with length that give us depth in the front court. It will be a collective effort…We’ll play a little bit different style in which we don’t rely on just a couple of players. The way we execute our offense has to be different. We’ll try to play fast, but the way we construct that will depend on what we have. We have some options to play big, some options to play small. We have some guys who look good in the airport. In another month I’ll have a better feel…Bryant Allen is a month and a half past his ankle surgery. By mid-July he should be 100 percent. We’ll be cautious.

Geno Ford, Bradley:

We don’t have a lot in quantity coming back, but our quality is pretty good. We think Walt Lemon can be one of the top perimeter guys in the league. Tyshon Pickett really came on with his toughness and ability to score in the paint. Jordan Prosser is a senior who has played a ton of minutes. 7-foot-1 Nate Wells is returning…Kadarryl Bell had major shoulder surgery in the off-season, won’t be cleared until September or October. He was really playing his best basketball when he got hurt…We have eight newcomers. Anthony Fields and Omari Grier were redshirts last year. Anthony is a true point guard with good speed. Omari is a really good shooter and we’ve been at or near the bottom in 3-point shooting. We have Jordan Swopshire and are really excited about him. Xzavier Taylor won a state championship at Morgan Park in Chicago. Stefan Zecevic is with the Serbian under-20 team and is not on campus yet. We have two JUCO transfers. Chris Blake is an active inside guy 6-6, bouncy, runs the floor. Auston Barnes from Odessa has played well. He’s a big guy at 6-7 who can really shoot it. I wouldn’t even be able to guess a starting  lineup or rotation. We’re probably nine or 10 deep…We all know how great the basketball is in Chicago, we trip over each other up there…Lemon didn’t play point until his sophomore year and developed into an All-Conference player. He can be helped by not having to run the team and focusing on making plays…We need to make a jump into the next tier of our league. It was difficult to go from dead last to the bottom end of the middle-pack.

Porter Moser, Loyola:

Joining the MVC is really resonating with the 2014 and 2015 classes. The Valley has a strong name in this area. The media people here have been great — WGN, Tribune, Sun-Times — we’ll be on a bigger stage. Almost every game will be on some type of TV. It’s such a different level…We have no seniors, two juniors. We have one post player who is an upperclassman. We need Christian Thomas to take a leadership role. Coach Rick Majerus and I were going to try to get him to walk-on at Saint Louis. He was  one of the most improved players in the Horizon last year. Matt O’Leary has put on 20 pounds and grew an inch to 6-8. He’s impressed me with his drive to improve his body. Devon Turk has added 12 pounds — needed it because he was so light…Milton Doyle has a lot of expectations. Just want him to play as hard as he can all the time. He’s tremendously talented, a skinny 6-4, long arms…Jeff White is one of my favorite kids I’ve coached. Worked hard on his shot and body and is learning to make better decisions and becoming a true point guard. He’s one of the most-liked guys on campus. His personality resonates with people…I’m a Valley guy. Doug Elgin is a long-time friend. It’s an awesome league. We’re preparing our guys to let them know how good it is. There’s great teams in the Valley, kids play on the same page, fundamental, play within a system. Hard to win on the road in the Valley. I’ve been watching a lot of tape to get caught up. League coaches work unbelievably hard in recruiting to take guys from big boys.

Marty Simmons, Evansville: 

We’re excited about our core nucleus of players, who played with Colt Ryan…Egidijus Mockevicius continues to grow and develop. He’s never had a chance to work so much in the off-season and can be a special player…DJ Ballentine had a great freshman year for us and will step into a bigger role for us…Ryan Sawvel has worked extremely hard in the off-season and is committed to getting better and stronger…Adam Wing started for us late and brings tons of toughness — a glue guy who does a bit of everything. We have a redshirt freshman in David Howard, 6-9, 240, who is a very skilled interior player. Luke Gibson was the Cleveland-area Player of the Year. He has ability to push in transition and can guard. Jalen Brown is as athletic as any player we’ve had in the program with great quickness and jumping ability. My son, Blake, can shoot it, drive it, good passer. Christian Benzon from Denmark is an athletic swing player playing with their national team. We have a lot of new faces who are working extremely hard…I think the Valley will be a knockdown drag out. Good coaches and programs committed to winning.

Ray Giacoletti, Drake:

We’re getting close to being done with our schedule. Playing in a MTE in Fresno and owe a game to Saint Mary’s. We have interest in maintaining the rivalry with Creighton. It’s been a great game for both institutions…Summer practices have been great asset to implement fundamentals and bring team up to speed with new staff. Hopefully, we can close the gap of the learning curve with summer practices. Offense will be dictated by personnel. We’re trying to get a feel for our strengths and weaknesses. We want to get stops, get out and run and get easy baskets. It’s so hard today to get half-court baskets…I’ve not watched any video. We start at ground-zero with no preconceived notions. Everyone starts fresh…Trying to raise the final bit of money for our new practice facility. It will be on the north end of the Knapp Center, $7 million facility. Badly needed men’s and women’s practice courts, locker rooms, film rooms. Will give players 24/7 access. Be finished in 2014…Offensively, it was a great learning experience at Gonzaga, and we’ll take some of what we learned…It’s so difficult late to not make mistakes in recruiting. We wanted to be 100 percent sure or save it for 2014. We found three guys who can help us. The better of the three is Chris Caird from Marshalltown, 6-6, a real strong young man who can post up people. Trevor Berkeley from Tyler JC is a longer athletic kind of guy who fills a need. We were able to get Blake Danielak, a high school player who committed to Texas Tech, but there was a coaching change. We will have five scholarships for 2014…Seth Van Deest and Richard Carter have done good job with leadership. Jordan Daniels will be available at the semester break and is a quick little guy. Aaron Hawley has year of eligibility left. After having basketball taken away from him, he has a chip on his shoulder…At Gonzaga, the whole school bought in to how it will help everyone at the University, such as the engineering school. The brand of Drake Basketball can help the entire campus. The president and athletic director at Drake really see that.

Ben Jacobson, UNI:

We have one game to get on our schedule. With MWC Challenge and BracketBusters going away, we have true road games and MTE at the Paradise Jam. We’re hopeful to start something with Creighton. It was late in the game to try get something going this year and even next year, but hopefully sometime soon…I think Loyola is positioned to do well in our league. Porter has experience in our league. Very good coach and person. Based on that alone, they have ability to do well. They will put resources behind the program. Across the board in our league, we’re in good position to cover up for not having Creighton…We have five incoming freshmen and Virginia’s Paul Jesperson is a transfer. I really like the group. Some will be counted on to play right away. Wes Washpun sat out last year and he’s a guy who is the most athletic and fastest guy we’ve had in our basketball program. He’s highly competitive and wears his emotions on his sleeve. Jeremy Morgan has some size and length on the wing and has had some great workouts. Ted Frieman gives us  some size at 6-9, and is good defensively. Robbie Knar can really shoot the basketball. Bennett Koch is the youngest of the Koch brothers. He’s right at 6-10 and his body could use a year to develop. Klint Carlson is a 6-7 skilled forward and the guys have been impressed with him in pick-up games. Our group of five freshmen have a lot to work with…Seth Tuttle and Deon Mitchell need to elevate their leadership and play on the floor. Seth needs a lot of work on his perimeter skills. We ran a lot of our offense through Jake Koch last year, and Seth needs to pick up that slack. He gets in here on his own at 7 a.m. and is working to take the next step as a player.

Wichita State, Gregg Marshall:

There have been subtle differences in life since achieving Final Four. I’m still a dad at home and come in here and coach kids at camp, enjoyed a vacation, not really that big a change. Have a commitment from a 2014 recruit who was recruited by schools we generally wouldn’t be able to beat in recruiting. He pursued us, so I think that was a direct correlation to the Final Four run. I hope it will open some other doors for us…Senior Cleanthony Early working hard in the off-season to improve his draft stock and make himself a more sought-after player…Evan Wessel was maybe inch-for-inch, pound-for-pound our toughest player when he went down early last season. We could have brought him back, but he had not used a redshirt year. He’s a local kid, a third-generation Shocker. He’ll be a sophomore again. Vincennes transfer Darius Carter looks like a guy who can play the 5 or 4. He’s much more skilled than Carl Hall, but not as strong. He’s longer, more athletic.

Barry Hinson, Southern Illinois:

We still haven’t finished our schedule, anticipate going into August. We’re going to play Missouri and Murray State next year and both will dramatically improve our schedule…We’re extremely young. We have Davante Drinkard, Desmar Jackson and Anthony Beane as the only guys with extended playing time, and Jalen Pendleton has a little bit…Bola Olaniyan — offensively, skill-wise he needs to develop a lot, but he’s so strong and is probably our best rebounder. He’s just so green, having come over from Nigeria…Our league is fine. We had a team play in the Final Four, and it wasn’t Creighton. We’ve never been a one-team league. It’s the second-oldest conference to the Big Ten. I’m not excited about Creighton leaving, but we have a great league and if you’re not a part of it, you’re missing out…Beane Jr. needs to expand his repertoire offensively and get better at stopping his man defensively. We were just awful defensively last year. We were 10th in a lot of statistical categories…If Desmar ever figures out that he’s a pretty good player and he’ll be responsible off the court, he’ll be a lot more responsible on the court. He’s had a good summer so far, but he could go off-road on us in a heartbeat. He’s certainly our best talent…As much as I’ve talked about Wichita State while recruiting, they ought to put me on the alumni list. I’m really proud of what Gregg and those guys did, we take great pride in it…I think Sean O’Brien will play for us, if not start — I’m really encouraged by what he’s done. KC Goodwin weighs 114 pounds, but if we can get a little meat on his bones, he can help us at point guard. Including Bola, those three really stick out more than anybody among our newcomers.

J.C. Lambert and Kim Fortney overcame long odds to achieve great success in Track & Field

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.”

J.C. Lambert

J.C. Lambert

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.

Kim Fortney

Kim Fortney

“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.

Number-crunching provides insight to 2013 Saluki Baseball season

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.

The Salukis will have to replace Austin Montgomery’s .416 on-base percentage next year.

The Salukis will have to replace Austin Montgomery’s .416 on-base percentage next year.

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.

With stadium funding approved, Salukis bid farewell to Abe Martin Field this weekend

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.

Richard “Itch” Jones Stadium

Richard “Itch” Jones Stadium

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.

Abe Martin

Abe Martin

“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.”

Pitcher Brittney Lang keys Saluki Softball’s late-season rise

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.

Lang and Salukis enter final weekend of regular season with chance for top-4 seed.

Lang and Salukis enter final weekend of regular season with chance for top-4 seed.

“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.”

Saluki Football spring notebook

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.

NFL scouts have noticed Jayson DiManche's pass-rushing ability.

NFL scouts have noticed Jayson DiManche’s pass-rushing ability.

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.