CEDAR FALLS – Cold, windy and rainy. It was a downright miserable Saturday afternoon at the Robinson-Dresser Sports Complex.
University of Northern Iowa pitcher Kailyn Packard wasn’t fazed.
Packard stayed true to her approach against a picky and potent Southern Illinois lineup, working around five walks to secure a no-hitter during a 1-0 UNI victory that completed a crucial doubleheader sweep.
“I didn’t think about it,” Packard responded, when asked about the weather conditions that included steady rain during the sixth and seventh innings. “I tried to stick to my plan, focusing on every single pitch and not letting the outside factors affect me.”
Facing a team that refused to chase, Packard settled in as the game progressed.
“I think I was forcing my pitches rather than spinning them, so I just made the adjustment of continuously tunneling through the zone and letting my pitches move through the zone and not try to make them move,” Packard noted.
The game two gem improved UNI’s redshirt sophomore to 13-2 against league opponents. It followed an opener in which catcher Emmy Wells hit a go-ahead grand slam home run in the bottom of the sixth inning and UNI prevailed 7-5.
With the wins, UNI (29-17 overall, 19-7 Missouri Valley Conference) sits percentage points ahead of Missouri State (16-6) for the No. 2 seed and an extra bye into the semifinal round of next weekend’s MVC tournament. UNI’s current winning percentage of .731 would dip below Missouri State’s .727 if the Panthers drop tomorrow’s scheduled noon regular-season finale against a Southern Illinois team locked into fourth place in the league standings.
Missouri State’s final game in its series with Evansville was canceled on Saturday, and the Bears will close the regular season after playing just 22 of a potential 27 league games.
“I will not even look at the percentages,” UNI coach Ryan Jacobs said, addressing his approach to a finale with plenty on the line. “I’m just going to stay focused on what we’ve been doing all year long, and that’s on us and getting better. We had a great day today, but we’ve got to get better tomorrow and keep that mentality.”
It took a team effort for UNI to cap a sweep of Southern Illinois (34-13, 16-9) with a no-hitter.
“It’s a tough lineup,” Jacobs said. “They’re very gritty at the plate. They do not swing at much off the plate so you don’t get them to chase very often. She (Packard) definitely had to be on her game, but you’ve got to give a little bit of credit to our defense. There’s some plays that our defense made that were just phenomenal.”
Packard’s no-hitter was complemented by error-free defense. UNI third baseman Brooke Snider snagged a line drive in the fifth inning after Kamryn Shaffer and Sammy Moss tracked down fly balls to the outfield for all three outs of the fourth.
“My defense backed me up great,” Packard said. “There’s a lot of luck in a no-hitter. It’s not just the pitcher.”
The Salukis had a runner on first base after a one-out walk in the seventh before Snider fired to Taylor Hogan for a fielder’s choice. Packard then recorded her ninth strikeout to complete her first no-hitter since her freshman season at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“It’s just so exciting,” Packard said. “I couldn’t do it without my team. They’ve pushed me to be my best up to this point. It’s the most fun celebrating with them in the end.”
The celebration ended quickly as UNI’s players turned into a grounds crew and laid down tarps to preserve the field for Sunday’s finale. With Packard dealing in a tight game, Jacobs and his players did their best to carry on with their normal routine.
“I knew it was up there and I didn’t say anything,” Jacobs said. “I think our team has learned enough about the karma that the game will give you to keep their dang mouth shut.
“But you could certainly tell the way our defense was playing that they were locked into what was going on and they wanted to help her get that (no-hitter).”
The lead changed hands four times during the opening game in which each team benefited from multiple errors.
A scary situation occurred in the top of the sixth inning when UNI’s starting pitcher Samantha Heyer was hit flush in the jaw by a line drive. Heyer’s mask helped absorb some of the contact, but she exited with the bases loaded.
Southern Illinois then took a 4-3 lead after Aubree DePron singled through the right side of the infield and Maddy Vermejan hit a sacrifice fly to center. UNI quickly answered with its first three batters reaching base in the bottom of the frame before Wells’ grand slam over the centerfield fence.
“Emmy was getting good swings all day long,” Jacobs said. “In the dugout we were talking about her approach and her plan. She stuck to it and fought through it and got a good pitch and really connected.
“It was one of the better swings I’ve seen her take. It was a big lift for our team. It’s just coming from all over the lineup right now. ... It doesn’t matter who is up. Somebody can come up big and we have been.”
Prior to Wells’ blast, Shaffer opened the bottom of the second with a solo homer and Hogan lined a home run off the scoreboard for her first career round-tripper in the fifth inning.
UNI’s lone run in game two came when Sammey Bunch lofted a ball to deep center that bounced off Saluki fielder Maris Boelens’ outstretched glove. Madison Parks, who led off with a walk, scored from first on that double by the UNI shortstop. Bunch reached base in six of her seven plate appearances at the top of the Panther lineup.
UNI 7, SOUTHERN ILLINOIS 5
SIU 002 002 1 — 5 7 2
UNI 011 014 x — 7 7 3
Sarah Harness and Katelyn Massa. Samantha Heyer, Hailey Sanders (6), Erica Oler (7) and Emmy Wells. WP—Sanders (2-2). LP—Harness (19-5). 2B—Huckleberry, DePron (SIU). HRs—Shaffer, Hogan, Wells (UNI).
UNI 1, SOUTHERN ILLINOIS 0
SIU 000 000 1—0 0 0
UNI 001 000 x—1 4 0
Madi Eberle and Massa. Kailyn Packard and Wells. WP—Packard (19-5). LP—Eberle (9-6). 2B—Bunch (UNI).