CEDAR FALLS — After 51 games and many ups and downs, the University of Northern Iowa softball team knows the pitfalls it needs to avoid and the targets it needs to hit to be successful.
At times during the 2018 season, the Panthers have been able to get great pitching, solid defense and timely hitting on the way to 26 wins. At other times, one or two of those pieces of the puzzle went missing during 25 losses.
Sixth-seeded UNI is hoping all three pieces come together beginning Thursday when it opens Missouri Valley Conference tournament action against seventh-seeded Illinois State at Drake’s Buel Field in Des Moines.
“We know in tournament time it is all about pitching, defense and clutch hitting,” Panther head coach Ryan Jacobs said. “Those are three pieces we need to have in order to have success.
“We need to take care of the ball on defense, and offensively we don’t need to rip the cover off the ball, we just need to be efficient when we have runners on.”
UNI took two out of three games from the Redbirds (20-32) in the regular season, winning 10-6 and 6-1 while ISU took game two, 2-1.
That said, the Redbirds have eliminated UNI from the MVC tournament in the second round two of the last three years.
“For me, we can’t lose a third time. We don’t want to lose a third time to them,” senior first baseman Kennedy Bailey said.
Bailey and all-conference outfielder Brittney Roby are the only seniors on the Panther roster. This is the time of year athletes live for, they said.
“You have been working up to this moment all season,” added Bailey, a second-team all-Valley pick in 2016. “For us, it is a consistency thing. If we all commit to being our best we can outplay anyone we come up against.”
Roby, who is in her second season with UNI after transferring from DMACC, is part of a one-two punch with Sammey Bunch that fuels the UNI offense. Roby owns a .384 average and has struck out just seven times in 348 career at-bats. Bunch is hitting .351 with a team-best five home runs, 30 runs scored and 31 RBIs.
“A new slate,” Roby said. “We don’t have to worry about what we have done previously. I think we need to have fun. That is part of this last hurrah.”
This UNI team knows what it takes to reach the Valley tournament final, having done it last year before losing to Southern Illinois in the championship game.
The focus first is on the Redbirds and giving starting pitcher Brooke Craig, who won both starts against ISU in the regular-season series, a chance to pick up win three against the Redbirds. That would move the Panthers into a second-round game Friday against third-seeded Southern Illinois.
Craig, the Waterloo Columbus product, has been a mainstay in the circle for UNI after an injury curtailed No. 1 starter Jaclyn Spencer’s season . Craig is 14-11 with a 3.03 earned-run average.
“We just need to go out there, compete and play our brand of ball,” Jacobs said. “Like I have always said, let things take care of themselves and if you play the game the right way, a lot of times good things happen.”