CEDAR FALLS — Defending Missouri Valley Conference softball co-champion Northern Iowa has been picked to finish third in one of the closest MVC preseason polls ever.

The Panthers, who were 33-19 overall and 20-6 in league games a year ago, garnered 86 points in the poll of the league’s coaches, media and media relations directors. UNI received three first-place votes.

Illinois State is the preseason favorite with 88 points and two first-place votes. Southern Illinois was one point behind with three first-place votes, and Drake was picked fourth with 74 points and two votes for first.

Two UNI sophomores were named to the preseason all-conference team — shortstop Sammey Bunch and pitcher Jaclyn Spencer.

Bunch hit .325 last season with seven homers, four triples, 12 doubles and 32 RBIs. She was named MVC Freshman of the Year and first-team all-conference. Spencer went 14-4 in the pitching circle with a 2.51 earned-run average and 147 strikeouts in 133.2 innings of work.

The Panthers also return Brittney Roby (.295), Brittney Krodinger, Courtney Krodinger, Abby Downs, Tianna Drahn, Kennedy Bailey, Adara Opiola and Ashley Chesser (.340, three homers in 50 at-bats).

UNI’s pitching staff is unproven behind Spencer. Brooke Craig is back for her third season, but injuries have limited her to 7.1 innings the last two seasons. Emma Olejniczak, a first-team all-stater at Perry High School last season, also joins the staff.

UNI opens its season by hosting the UNI-Dome Classic Feb. 9.