April 29, 2014
By John Lock
CARBONDALE, Ill. - Saluki Softball's freshman class wasn't the most cohesive bunch when they first arrived on campus. In fact, the four freshmen -- Jessa Thomas, Shaye Harre, Merri Anne Patterson and Brook Womack -- spent the first few weeks just trying to figure each other out.
"It was pretty awkward," Womack said.
Patterson and Womack had played on the same summer team for years, and so had Harre and Thomas. Each pair were close friends, but when the two groups met at SIU, it was two worlds colliding.
"If there's music on, Brook is dancing and Merri Anne is attempting to dance. Shaye and I don't dance," Thomas said flatly.
And then there was the awkward part about playing time. Patterson was the Chattanooga Fury's first baseman. Harre was the new kid on the block. But that's where things finally started to click. Patterson learned the outfield--where she now starts for SIU--and Harre seamlessly fit into the No. 4 spot on the lineup card and the No. 3 position on the field. And the team won. A lot.
"On the field, it all just clicked," Harre said. "It all went together. There was no hesitation about it. Nothing needed to be said. We just went and played, and it just worked."
And that's what head coach Kerri Blaylock counted on with the four commits. They had all committed to SIU because they sensed a family atmosphere. Patterson even told her mom she wasn't going to attend SIU on her way to the campus before changing her tune on her way away from it.
Their summer team took fourth in the nation, and the four Salukis showed they could hold their own with the nation's best--their teammates included players who are now regulars on three SEC teams. And yet that didn't give the foursome much confidence after watching batting practice one day.
Blaylock made the pairs split up--Harre rooming with Womack and Patterson with Thomas--and they fit into their new roles as freshmen on a senior-laden team. Then, they went to work trying to live up to one of the great senior classes in school history, one that includes two of the top-10 best RBI producers in Missouri Valley Conference history.
"You have to step up and give your all all the time," Womack said. "You have to work your butt off every day. I like that because it makes you better."
So far, the freshmen have been up to the challenge. Harre has been undoubtably the best freshman in the MVC, ranking second in the conference in RBIs and in the top-10 in doubles, hits, on-base percentage, walks and total bases.
"Shaye has been a stud ever since I met her," Thomas said. "She's the type that would come back from basketball season and hit a bomb after she hadn't hit in a month. She always came up with the biggest RBIs and biggest hits. I want to be like Shaye when I grow up."
Patterson got the call into the starting lineup midway through the conference season. In her second game as a starter, she threw out the potential tying run at the plate to end the game. In her third game, she hit a two-run homer that ended up being the difference. Ten games later and SIU is 8-2 with Patterson starting, and she hit a solo homer to knock off league-leading Wichita State last weekend.
"The day before she started at Bradley, I told her, `I hope you get to show what you can do,'" Womack said. "I was so happy for her when she got the chance and came through."
Thomas and Womack haven't seen the field as much, mainly because they're playing behind All-MVC caliber players, but Blaylock called Womack "one of the best shortstops I had seen" and Thomas "a future Cristina Trapani," referring to one of SIU's all-time great catchers.
"There's no doubt in my mind that (Jessa and Brook) would do the exact same thing if they were called upon," Blaylock said of the freshmen's abilities to step up when called upon. "All four of them will be impact players here, and all of them will be big-time impact players here."
The quartet have event gotten those polar opposite personalities to click. They've decided to live together again next year.
They've come together with a common goal: a ring. They want a ring for the seniors who made their transition seamless. They want one because they're clicking at just the right time again, having won four-straight MVC series and nine of their last 11 MVC games. And maybe, just maybe, if they got that ring, Patterson and Womack could get Thomas and Harre to dance.