NORMAL, Ill. - The Illinois State softball team (13-12) renews its in-state rivalry with Southern Illinois in a three-game series, Friday, March 29 and Saturday, March 30 at Marian Kneer Stadium. The series represents both the home- and Missouri Valley Conference-opener for the Redbirds, who have not played since March 10 due to inclement weather.
Friday's single game is slated for a 4 p.m., start time. Saturday's doubleheader will begin at noon.
Scouting the Salukis
The Salukis enter the weekend having lost six of their last eight games, including going 0-4 against Drake and Northern Iowa to begin MVC play. SIU reached the championship game of the MVC Tournament last season, before falling to ISU, 13-3. The Salukis went 36-20 overall and 16-10 in the MVC, good enough for a fourth-place league finish. SIU returned 12 letterwinners and seven starters from that squad, and was voted preseason co-favorite in the Valley, along with ISU.
Senior Morgan Barchan has rebounded from a disappointing 2012 campaign, returning to her 2011 Second Team All-MVC form to lead the SIU offense by hitting .419/.500/.558 in 2013. Junior Jayna Spivey, a 2012 Second Team All-MVC selection, provides the Saluki offense with pop by leading the squad with six home runs and 19 RBI. SIU returned all three pitchers from last year's team, with senior Brittney Langand sophomore Alyssa Wunderlichcombining for all but one start in 2013. The Salukis are lead by 14th-year head coach Kerri Blaylock, who earned her 500th-career win with a victory over Saint Louis, March 21.
The Salukis are the most common opponent for the Redbirds, with the series history dating back to 1964. ISU holds a 66-55 lead in the previous 121 meetings, including last year's 13-3 win in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship game.
Home Sweet Home
Friday's contest against the Salukis marks the home-opener for ISU, after playing 25-straight away from Marian Kneer Stadium to begin the season.
The Redbirds hold a 26-9 all-time mark in home-openers, including wins in three-straight and four of the past five years.
ISU holds an all-time mark of 152-58 at Marian Kneer Stadium, including a 129-38 record in Missouri Valley Conference games.
It's Valley Time
The Redbirds have made a habit of opening Missouri Valley Conference play with a victory, going 23-6 in conference-openers all-time.
SIU has been ISU's first conference opponent two times previously, with the last time coming in 1997. The Salukis have won the opener both times.
The Redbirds' offense has been largely fueled by big innings this season. Out of the 56 innings ISU has scored in, 33 of them have featured more than one run.
Timely hitting has been a main factor in putting up the crooked numbers. ISU is first in the Missouri Valley Conference in batting average with runners in scoring position (.326), with runners on base (.318), with two outs (.293) and two-out RBIs (63), while also placing third with the bases loaded (.491).
All of senior Lauren Kellar's 12 RBI have come with two outs, ranking her fourth in the conference, while junior first baseman Laura Canopy is tied for the league-lead with 15 two-out RBI. Conversely, ISU is hitting .219 with the bases empty, ranking last in the conference.
Kay Earns Second MVC Player of the Week Accolade
Senior catcher/infielder Elizabeth Kay was named the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Week for the second time this season and third time in her career on March 11, following her performances at Louisville's Red & Black Classic.
Kay led the Redbirds to a 2-2 weekend, going 7-for-11 with eight RBI, six walks, two doubles and a run scored, while posting a .765 on-base percentage.
After going 0-for-3 in ISU's first game of the weekend against No. 14 Michigan, Kay recorded multi-hit performances in the next three games. She went 4-for-5 against Austin Peay, tying a career-high with five RBI. Then, on Sunday, she reached base in all nine of her plate appearances, going a combined 4-for-4 with five walks and three RBI in ISU's win over Miami (Ohio) and loss to No. 13 Louisville.
Hamilton, Kay and Kellar have seen regular playing time in all four seasons, with each starting every game thus far in 2013.
Kay ranks top-15 all-time in six major offensive categories: home runs (third with 38), RBI (fourth with 146), slugging percentage (ninth at .528), runs (10th with 105), doubles (14th with 28) and hits (15th with 165).
Kay has also started all 190 games in her career, 33 shy of Kara Nelson's record 223, with 28 scheduled games remaining.
Hamilton's top-15 rankings include runs scored (third with 129), RBI (sixth with 104), hits (seventh with 179), slugging percentage (11th at .512) and starts (16th with 182), while Kellar's 104 runs and 174 starts rank her 12th and 19th, respectively.
The trio, combined with Music, is the only class in program history to make three NCAA Tournament appearances.
Hitting the High Note
Senior Shelby Musicis making the most of her new-found designated player role in 2013 by enjoying the best offensive output of her career.
After seeing limited playing time during the season's first two weekends, Music started for the first time since her sophomore campaign vs. UMass (Feb. 23), and has been a constant in the ISU lineup since.
After combining to hit .171 with three home runs and seven RBI through her first three seasons, Music is hitting .306 with one home run and 13 RBI in 2013.
She set career-highs in hits and RBI vs. Miami (Ohio) (March 10), by going 3-for-3 with four RBI in ISU's 16-1 win.
Nothing but the Best
Illinois State continued its tradition of playing a challenging non-conference schedule in 2013, with 15 games scheduled against teams that made the NCAA Tournament in 2012.
The Redbirds are 3-7 this season against teams ranked in the top 25, the most victories over ranked teams since picking up nine in 2007. ISU knocked off No. 22/24 Baylor, 8-0, on Feb. 8, No. 14/17 South Florida, 7-0, on Feb. 24, and No. 13/13 Louisiana-Lafayette, 4-3, on March 3. The victories mark the seventh season in the past nine that ISU has defeated a team ranked in the top 25.
Five Redbird foes are in this week's top-25 polls: No. 2/2 Arizona State, No. 9/9 Texas A&M, No. 11/11 Louisville, No. 13/14 Michigan and No. 16/20 Baylor.
ISU has been in the "Receiving Votes" category in the USA Today/NFCA Top 25 poll twice this season.
Expectations to Soar High
The Redbirds opened 2013 as the co-favorites in the Missouri Valley Conference, tying Southern Illinois atop the preseason coaches' poll.
ISU defeated SIU, 13-3, in last year's MVC Tournament championship game to clinch a spot in its third-consecutive NCAA Tournament. The Redbirds reached the final of the Columbia, Mo., NCAA Regional, before being eliminated by No. 9 Missouri, 2-1.
Along with the top ranking, the Redbirds garnered three MVC Preseason All-Conference selections in senior outfielder Jhavon Hamilton (.304, 12 HR, 37 RBI, 11-11 SB in 2012), senior infielder/catcher Elizabeth Kay(.263, 7 HR, 31 RBI) and senior outfielder Lauren Kellar(.298, 3 HR, 10 RBI, 11-11 SB).
The Legend Continues
Head coach Melinda Fischeris in her 28th season at the helm of the Redbirds, and 30th overall, with a 935-628-4 career-record.
A 2010 National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) Hall of Fame inductee, Fischer ranks in the top-20 all-time for NCAA Division I wins, and is 12th among active coaches.
The all-time winningest coach in Illinois State athletics and Missouri Valley Conference softball history has led Redbird teams to all nine of the program's NCAA Tournament appearances, including the last three years. She has also won 10 MVC/Gateway regular-season titles and five MVC/Gateway Tournament championships.
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