April 12, 2013
By Bill Ford
CARBONDALE, Ill. - Southern Illinois softball coach Kerri Blaylock remembers sitting in the dugout 10 years ago at Alabama's Rhoads Stadium and looking out at the field in awe.
Saluki shortstop Jenny Doehring had just hit a towering home run over the scoreboard in left-center field to give SIU a 1-0 lead over the No. 22-ranked Crimson Tide.
"There is an elephant on their scoreboard, and it went over the elephant," Blaylock said. "I'll never forget that moment. It was like, `Wow.' It was pretty special."
The Salukis shut out Alabama 4-0 on its home turf to move to 7-0 on a young 2003 season. The Crimson Tide exacted some revenge the following day in the 11-inning Bama Bash championship game, but SIU left Tuscaloosa, Ala., with an 8-1 record and more than a little confidence.
"That is the first time I felt that group could be really good," Blaylock said of the Bama Bash. "Then we just continued to do things that hadn't been done before."
The 2003 season was groundbreaking for SIU in every sense of the word. Not only was it the first year the Salukis played at Charlotte West Stadium, but it was a year of numerous firsts as SIU softball rose to national prominence similar to the Saluki men's basketball during its magical 2001-02 run.
The 2003 Salukis went 39-14 overall and 18-6 in the Missouri Valley Conference, earned the first at-large NCAA Tournament Bid in program history and won SIU softball's first NCAA Tournament games. Southern also posted three wins over ranked opponents and made an appearance in the Top 25 for the first time in program history. The 2003 Salukis finished the season with SIU's first run to the NCAA Sweet 16 and finished the year ranked No. 22/23 in the nation.
It started on a mid-February day in Alabama, but Blaylock pointed out several milestones that made the 2003 season memorable. One was a midseason trip to Nebraska to take on Creighton and No. 6 Nebraska. SIU came out of the trip with a 2-1 series win over the Bluejays and a 2-1 upset win over the Cornhuskers.
Blaylock pointed out SIU's 2-0 win over Creighton in the series opener as one that epitomized the season. Bluejays pitcher Tammy Nielsen struck out 19 Saluki batters on the day, but Southern found a way to survive. Saluki ace Amy Harre pitched a shutout and freshman Katie Louis came up with a huge 2-run home run in the ninth inning to win it.
"Their pitcher struck us out 19 times, but we still won because we didn't quit," Blaylock said. "That was the thing about that team. We just never quit. Ever."
Another big moment for the 2003 Salukis was the team's 2-1 series win on the road over eventual MVC champion Illinois State. The Salukis picked up a pair of 1-0 wins in a doubleheader sweep of the Redbirds with Louis and Doehring each hitting solo home runs, and Harre and senior Renee Mueller throwing shutouts.
"The pitching was really, really good that year," Blaylock said of Harre, Mueller and Katie Kloess. "Those three kids really allowed us to compete with people at all different levels. We were also very good defensively. We didn't score a ton of runs, but we were so confident most of the time."
The Salukis celebrate a 2003 NCAA Tournament win over UMass.
After toiling in "others receiving votes" territory most of the season, the series win at ISU pushed SIU into the Top 25 for the first time in school history. Southern suffered an early exit in the MVC Tournament, but it didn't derail SIU's postseason hopes thanks to its strong RPI and those marquee wins over Alabama and Nebraska. SIU learned via ESPN News they earned the first-ever at-large NCAA Tournament bid by a MVC team.
"It's more difficult to get an at-large berth because you have to prove you're good over the whole season, and we did that all year," Blaylock told the media after the selection show in 2003. "It took a while to get back to a Regional and I want to enjoy this and hopefully make it a tradition."
The No. 6 seed Salukis opened the Tuscaloosa, Ala., regional with a 5-2 upset win over No. 3 seed UMass. While the win was a huge step for the program, it paled in comparison to the second game when SIU took down No. 17 Stanford, 6-1.
"We went up 6-0 and it was the fifth or sixth inning. They have two Olympians on their team. I'm sitting there looking out on the field, thinking, `Wow,'" Blaylock said. "I say something to (assistant coach) Buddy Foster about it, and Buddy says, `Shut up Kerri. We are in the middle of the game.' But to me, it was something I had to soak in. You don't know when you are going to get it again."
SIU followed with a 7-4 loss to Alabama, but rebounded with a 6-1 win over UMass to earn a spot in the Regional championship game against the Crimson Tide. SIU fought Alabama through four scoreless innings before the Crimson Tide touched Harre for a pair of runs in the fifth and eventually took the 2-0 win.
"We competed right to the end," Blaylock said. "Now that I think back on it, being that close to the World Series -- you just don't get those opportunities often in your coaching career."
Saturday, Southern will recognize the 10-year anniversary of the Sweet 16 season between games of its doubleheader against Missouri State. Blaylock said 14 of the 16 players from the team will be in attendance for the reunion.
Blaylock said the 2003 roster was a culmination of several years of recruiting before SIU had a nice stadium or a postseason tradition to use as a recruiting tool.
"I recruited all of those kids before (Charlotte West Stadium) was ever built. They all came here on trust," Blaylock said. "We had that old terrible field that was out by the road, and they came just because of the program, with the faith that something hopefully would happen."
Something did happen in 2003, and it kept happening. SIU went to five-consecutive NCAA Tournaments between 2003 and 2007, all of which came via at-large bids. Blaylock said 2003 elevated SIU's status from being well-known regionally to being known on the national softball stage.
"It was a springboard. We beat teams that we had never beaten before ranking-wise. It put us on the map," Blaylock said. "When you are beating an Alabama and a Stanford team with multiple Olympians, it kind of puts it into perspective. It gave us the confidence and the notoriety.