CEDAR FALLS – Five years ago when Northern Iowa softball coach Ryan Jacobs was recruiting Sammey Bunch he made her a promise.
Jacobs told Bunch by the time she graduated he’d schedule a game against Missouri in Columbia, Mo., which is about 60 minutes from Bunch’s hometown of Frankenstein, Mo.
Jacobs was set to deliver on that promise last year but was forced to pull the Panthers out of a tournament at Missouri because it didn’t set up well in UNI’s schedule.
Sunday, Jacobs got Bunch, UNI’s star shortstop, a game in Columbia, Mo.
For the first time in program history the Panthers received an at-large bid into the NCAA softball tournament.
UNI will make its third overall appearance in the NCAA’s Friday when it plays in-state rival Iowa State where the Cyclones and Panthers will join Missouri and Illinois-Chicago in a regional.
ISU and UNI will play at 1 p.m.
“This ties a bow on that promise,” Jacobs laughed.
After losing 2-0 to Southern Illinois Saturday in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship game, Jacobs said he felt it was 50-50 whether the Panthers would get into the tournament.
With a nearly nine-hour bus ride back to Cedar Falls from Evansville, Ind. Sunday, that left Jacobs a lot of time to check different message boards and looked at several different bracketology analysis. Some had the Panthers in, some did not.
“The first time we got in (UNI was the MVC champion in 2013) we knew we were in. This time we had no idea if we’d get in or not,” Jacobs said. “It is pure excitement and a joy to celebrate with these ladies. This moment was worth every hard working day we went through this year.”
The berth caps off a year that where Jacobs will admit he wasn’t sure this trip to the NCAA tournament was possible. More than 85 percent of UNI’s roster is made up of freshman and sophomores.
The fall was not kind to the Panthers. Then after UNI’s opening MVC conference series, UNI had a 9-11 record. But things started to click for the young players. Bunch and fellow seniors Adara Opiola and Hannah Kelley began pulling the all the Panthers in the right direction.
UNI finished 22-7 over the final month and a half of the season earning the No. 2 seed in the MVC tournament and seeing its RPI ranking improve to the lower 50s.
“Absolutely, no,” Jacobs said if he could envision this team making the NCAA tournament in the fall. “I was that way halfway through the season. But something we talked about from day one is let’s win the MVC championship. That was our motivation. That was part of the process. I wasn’t sure but that was our goal and we worked towards it.
Bunch, the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, leads the Panthers into the Valley Tournament at Evansville, Ind., Friday.
“We got more and more buy-in every day. We surprised ourselves. We surprised a lot of people, so this is exciting.”
For players like Bunch and Opiola, who took advantage of an extra season of eligibility to play an extra year, it paid huge dividends.
“This is really exciting for me,” Bunch said. “It is going to be a really cool and fun experience for me and my family.”
Bunch said former Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine recruited her lightly when she was a star at Fatima High School.
“He did, but ironically he told me I didn’t hit enough home runs and stopped,” laughed Bunch who has hit 57 career home runs for UNI, including 21 this season. “I’m happy with my choice to come to UNI. I’m a small town girl and I don’t know how it would’ve worked out at a big school.”
Opiola held off law school to play one more season.
“It makes every decision so much easier, makes every reason so right,” Opiola said of holding off her future law career. “I just know all the hard work and sacrifices have been absolutely worth it. This will be an unbelievable experience.”
The Cyclones and Panthers have played twice this season and 83 times in history. ISU took the opening game, 12-2, in the UNI-Dome on Feb. 12, before the Panthers won 10-2 on April 14 at Robinson-Dresser Sports Complex in Cedar Falls.
ISU is making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1988.
“It is awesome for the state of Iowa to have two teams in the regionals,” UNI sophomore pitcher Kailyn Packard said. “We’ve seen each other twice this season so that makes it much more exciting.
“I dreamed since I was a little girl of hearing my team’s named called on selection Sunday so I can’t even describe the feeling right now.”
UNI is 6-30 against Missouri all-time with the last meeting coming in 2016. The Panthers are 8-3 overall against Illinois-Chicago with the last meeting in 2013.
Adara Opiola is ready for a tough new challenge in the classroom. But she has some unfinished business on the diamond first.
“Some people will look at it as a silly first-round pairing,” Jacobs said. “To me it is fitting. Its two fantastic programs, teams and coaching staffs. It will be fun. I have so much respect for coach Pinkerton, his staff and players.
“It is going to be great to experience this together because it has been a long time since they’ve been there as well.”