CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s softball team is in a good place.
The Panthers swept a three-game Missouri Valley Conference series from Bradley Friday and Saturday at Robinson-Dresser Complex. At 11-4 (23-15 overall), they are just a game behind Illinois State in the MVC standings.
Now the plot thickens. After 10 straight home games, UNI goes on the road this week for a doubleheader at Drake tonight and a three-game set at Loyola Saturday and Sunday.
On paper, the Bulldogs and Ramblers share last place in the MVC with 3-12 conference records. On the field, they are two capable and dangerous opponents.
Drake was the preseason Valley favorite with 2016 MVC Pitcher of the Year Nicole Newman leading the way and was off to an impressive start when the Bulldogs lost their fireballing junior in late February.
“One of the things we’re going to talk about at practice today (Monday) is that we’ve got to stay sharp and stay focused and make sure we’re thinking about ourselves and what’s got us to where we are right now and make sure that we continue to focus on those things,” Coach Ryan Jacobs said Monday during UNI’s weekly coaches’ luncheon. “Otherwise, this could be a week where we could trip up pretty quick.
“If our kids get caught up looking at the stats and seeing where Drake is in the league and where Loyola is in the league as far as their record goes, that would be a big mistake because although they might not have the wins in the league that they typically have, we can’t look at them and say they’re not a good team.”
As an instate rival and a foe that knows the Panthers well, Drake is always a tough matchup.
“It doesn’t really matter, I guess, who’s on the field because we know what the other team is going to do,” said Jacobs. “It all comes down to execution.
“They’ve got a lot of talented kids over there, and I know the loss of Nicole Newman, their pitcher, was a big loss for them and I’m sure a mental loss more than anything, but they’re dealing with that, but they’re still playing really good ball. We’ve got to make sure we take care of ourselves.
“The same thing with Loyola. They’re coming off a really big weekend against Southern Illinois, taking two out of three against Southern. Their pitching staff has been really solid for them all year long ... Seems to be that they’ve been coming on strong lately.”
TRACK AND FIELD: Head coach Dave Paulsen saw his men’s and women’s squads take another step forward Friday and Saturday at Missouri’s Tom Botts Invitational with several wins and performances that rank among the best in the Missouri Valley Conference this season.
Among the many highlights were thrower Brad Walski’s return to action following an injury and thrower Isaac Holtz’s efforts that earned him the men’s Most Outstanding Performer for the weekend after top-three finishes in the hammer, discus and shot put.
“It was another great weekend for us,” said Paulsen. “We just keep getting better, which is what you want to do.”
UNI will compete at Iowa’s Musco Invitational Saturday night.
WOMEN’S TENNIS: UNI suffered a pair of 4-3 Missouri Valley defeats over the weekend against Illinois State and Bradley.
Head coach Chris Sagers said his team simply got outplayed in the singles matches by a talented Redbird squad. Against Bradley, he said his Panthers struggled.
“A pretty frustrating weekend, to be honest,” said Sagers, whose team took the doubles point in both duals.
“The funny thing is, it’s been doubles that has been our problem all year long and we make it up with our singles play. Now we’re taking care of business in doubles and we’re losing our edge in singles. We’ve got to get that straightened out quick.”
UNI hosts Southern Illinois Saturday and Evansville Sunday.