NORMAL, Ill. — On paper, Northern Iowa’s chances of winning the Missouri Valley Conference softball championship were slim heading into the final weekend of regular-season play.
To pull it off, the Panthers had to sweep three games from league-leading Illinois State on the Redbirds’ home field.
But that’s exactly what UNI did, completing its charge to the championship Sunday with an 8-2 victory. The Panthers (32-18, 20-6) finished in a tie with Illinois State (30-20, 20-6) atop the MVC standings, but claimed the No. 1 seed for the MVC tournament that begins Thursday in Normal, Ill., based on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
It’s the third regular-season MVC title for the UNI program and the first since 2012. The Panthers’ 20 wins in league play are the second-most ever behind the 21 games that 2012 team won.
“The first step was to get that first game,” head coach Ryan Jacobs said of the weekend. “After we got it done in the Saturday games, I think they just knew they were gonna win (Sunday). There wasn’t much we needed to do at that point as coaches.”
UNI jumped in front with a three-run second inning Sunday that featured an RBI single by freshman Sammey Bunch and a two-run triple by sophomore Bailey Lange.
After the Redbirds nicked Panther starting pitcher Jaclyn Spencer for two runs in the fourth, Alyssa Buchanan took over in the circle and shut Illinois State out the rest of the way.
Meanwhile, UNI erupted for five more runs in the top of the fifth to break the game open. Brittney Roby and Macey Wolfe ripped run-scoring doubles, Spencer knocked in a run on a groundout and Bunch delivered a two-out, two-run single to cap the rally.
“It really started with our pitching,” said Jacobs as he reviewed the three-game sweep. “In the circle, we were pretty good, especially going up against the best-hitting lineup in the league. For our pitchers to do what they did was just phenomenal.
“We played phenomenal defense. There were some heads-up plays we made ... things we made mistakes on early in year we learned from.
“It kind of all came together this weekend.”
UNI 8, Illinois St. 2
N. Iowa 030 050 0 — 8 9 2
Illinois St. 000 200 0 — 2 5 1
Spencer, Buchanan (5) and Varriano. Finck, Christner (5), Domkuski (7) and de los Reyes. WP—Spencer (14-7). LP—Finck (21-10). Sv—Buchanan (2). 2B—Roby (UNI), Wolfe (UNI). 3B—Lange (UNI).
Records: UNI 32-18, 20-6. Illinois St. 30-20, 20-6.