CEDAR FALLS — Anna Varriano spent the first three years of her University of Northern Iowa softball career polishing her reputation as an excellent defensive catcher.

Blessed with a strong arm, quick feet and excellent athleticism, Varriano stepped into the Panther lineup as a freshman and provided UNI with an important presence behind the plate.

This season, the senior from Overland Park, Kan., has elevated her offensive game to the all-Missouri Valley Conference level of her defense.

Varriano hit her team-leading seventh home run of the season Sunday to give the Panthers (18-13 overall, 6-3 MVC) a 3-2 walk-off win over Evansville and a sweep of the first home series of the season.

In her first two seasons, Varriano hit .145 and .172 and saw her offensive opportunities limited accordingly. Last season, she took a big step forward by hitting .242 with four homers and 13 RBIs.

This season, she’s hitting .324 with seven homers, 23 RBIs and a heaping helping of senior leadership.

“Anna’s been doing a great job this year,” head coach Ryan Jacobs said Monday during UNI’s weekly coaches’ luncheon. “One of the big reasons we haven’t seen this from her in the last three years is the fact that she’s really tough on herself and has had to learn how to let things go and when she can just let the game come to her and be ready to attack it when it does.

“She’s really grasped that concept this year. She’s learned from a lot of mistakes and is just a more experienced, knowledgeable hitter now and we’re starting to see that. Her confidence level has risen and now she’s making people around her better because they’re constantly watching her, how to act and how to do things.

“It’s great to see her get the results that she’s been looking for.”

UNI hosts Southern Illinois this Saturday and Sunday in what shapes up as another challenging conference series.

“Southern Illinois has a great pitching staff,” said Jacobs. “They’re playing well as a team. They’re winning in different ways. They’re winning big, they’re winning in comebacks, they’re winning one-run games ... “

WOMEN’S TENNIS: UNI got its conference season off to a loud start with its first win over Drake since 2011 — a hard-fought, 4-3 victory.

Things didn’t get off to a good start for the Panthers, who lost the doubles point. They responded by taking four of the six singles matches, including a thrilling win by Astrid Santos, who lost a 5-2 lead, fought off a match point, forced a tiebreaker and then won it.

“Just a very entertaining day for us,” said head coach Chris Sagers. “Obviously, we were also thrilled.”

UNI (8-4, 1-0) hosts Missouri State at 1 p.m. Saturday and Wichita State at 10 a.m. Sunday.

TRACK AND FIELD: While Brandon Carnes was tearing up the track in Florida with the third-fastest 100-meter dash (10.17) and third-fastest 200 (20.31) in the country, UNI athletes were also excelling at a meet in Waverly.

Bryce Newcomb ran the sixth-best time in the Missouri Valley Conference in the 400 (48.94), Tom Yezek moved into fourth in the league in the discus (161-11), Hope Koerperich logged the league’s third-best discus mark (162-9) and Sarah Pate posted the second-best hammer throw (195-6). Koerperich’s mark ranks in the top 35 in the NCAA’s Central Region, while Pate’s effort cracked the top 20 regionally.

UNI will compete at Nebraska’s Husker Invite Saturday.

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Sports Editor

Sports Editor for The Courier

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