CEDAR FALLS – Northern Iowa seniors Sammey Bunch and Adara Opiola knew it was going to be an emotional day.
There were smiles, hugs, high-fives, laughter and tears on a memorable Sunday afternoon at Robinson-Dresser Sports Complex.
The senior standouts not only finished with a win in their final softball home game at UNI, they also were honored as college graduates.
Opiola delivered a clutch, two-out single in the fifth inning, providing the game’s first run before the Panthers went on to blank Southern Illinois 3-0.
The Panthers (30-17 overall, 20-7) completed a three-game weekend sweep over the Salukis (34-14, 16-10). UNI also locked up the No. 2 seed for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
“It was a tough weekend and Southern Illinois is always a top team in our league,” UNI coach Ryan Jacobs said. “Our young ladies have definitely grown this year. We have a couple of seniors who are fantastic and they’ve done a great job passing it on to the younger kids. This weekend was great preparation for the conference tournament and beyond.”
Bunch and Opiola were honored after the game as were the 2020 seniors whose season was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bunch and Opiola were then awarded their degrees on the field by UNI president Mark Nook, who gave a short speech. The players missed Saturday’s graduation ceremony at Northern Iowa while playing in a doubleheader against Southern Illinois.
“It was an awesome moment for the president of the college to come out here and honor us,” Opiola said. “It’s a Sunday and this was probably his day off. For him and the university to think about us is pretty awesome. It means a lot to have their support.”
Said Bunch: “It was very special that the president was here. It was a great experience and it was nice he took the time to recognize us. It was a special day, that’s for sure.”
Sunday’s game was scoreless and the Panthers were hitless until they broke through in the fifth inning. UNI’s Madison Parks crushed a one-out double off the top of the fence in left field. After Bunch flied out to advance Parks to third, Opiola lined a single into right field to drive in her team’s first run.
“Adara came up to me before that at-bat and said, ‘Coach, I’m going to sit on a changeup because that’s all she’s been throwing me,’” Jacobs said. “She had seen a bunch of changeups the first two at-bats, and the third time she saw another one. She was ready for it and drove it to right field and got us that go-ahead run. To see her come through in a clutch situation like that was fantastic.”
Opiola said her experience paid off in her last plate appearance.
“I wasn’t having a good day at the plate and I had struck out in my last at-bat,” she said. “I made an adjustment my last time. I slowed the moment down and did the best I could. It was sweet to have an at-bat like that in my final home game.”
Northern Iowa plated two insurance runs in the sixth. Taylor Hogan led off with a double before racing home on Kamryn Shaffer’s triple high off the fence in left-center field. Shaffer jogged home when Sammy Moss followed by connecting on a single to center field.
Panther pitcher Kailyn Packard turned in another superb performance to earn her 20th win of the season.
Packard followed her no-hitter against Southern Illinois on Saturday by pitching another shutout Sunday. She struck out nine and walked one while allowing just four hits.
“Kailyn’s been consistent for us all year long,” Jacobs said. “It’s nice to see her put back-to-back performances together like that. That’s what it is going to take for us going forward.”
Northern Iowa finished 15-3 at home. The Panthers now turn their focus to the MVC tournament this weekend in Evansville, Ind. Second-seeded UNI is scheduled to play on Friday against an opponent to be determined by games played the previous two days.
“We just have to continue to get better each day,” Jacobs said. “We really battled in this last game against a tough pitcher and we got better. We just have to continue to build on this and keep the momentum going.”
The Panthers are peaking at the right time. UNI won two out of three games against No. 1 MVC seed Illinois State earlier this month. Northern Iowa has won its last five games and eight of its last nine.