116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR FALLS — There’s a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to Northern Iowa softball’s 14-game winning streak.
Without the benefit of a large coaching staff and the ample resources that power conference peers boast, head coach Ryan Jacobs’ emphasis on data gathering and the implementation of that data is a team effort that’s helped build the program toward sustained success.
The Panthers’ (27-11, 18-1) data collection and its use analytically ramped up after a 12-year study of the program was published in the fall of 2018 by UNI professor Robin Lund.
Some of the biggest takeaways from Lund’s study was Jacobs’ lack of recruiting players with speed, resulting in little to no positive results from bunting.
And as obvious as it sounds, the study also made clear that hitting more home runs would help, so the realistic response with that knowledge quickly became an effort to hit more doubles.
To hit more doubles, the Panthers began to track exit velocities, launch angles and swing duration.
“It takes people that are smarter than me, and it started with Robin Lund, who was a professor here on campus,” Jacobs said. “Then, coming up with a system to track it and help your kids see each and every day, are they getting better at it, and then changing our philosophy a little bit and making it a little more individualized.”
Beyond the analytics, Jacobs, his staff and mostly players track quality at-bats, opposing pitcher tendencies, defensive efficiency, RAKE — an effort to get 30 at-bats or more with at least three extra base hits — freebies (balls in the dirt, errors and walks) and more.
Tracking those elements within the game has not only helped the Panthers win at the margins, it’s also kept bench players meaningfully involved in the game.
“It started with keeping people busy in the dugout so that we didn’t have kids that were sitting at one end just pouting and talking about why they weren’t playing,” Jacobs said. “(We) just tried to keep them all busy and start charting things that, as coaches, it was important to us, but then it became important to them.”
Data and analytics aside, despite losing All-American Sammey Bunch to graduation, UNI’s success can more simply be attributed to a talented roster that hit its stride once conference play began.
One through nine in its lineup offers a competitive at-bat and UNI has lived up to the calls from Lund’s study, leading the Missouri Valley Conference in home runs and slugging percentage.
As nice as the home runs have been, the Panthers’ pitching staff also has been key to success.
Samantha Heyer, Hailey Sanders and Erica Oler have provided above-average depth while junior ace Kailyn Packard continues to play at an all-conference level. Packard has an MVC-best 1.50 earned run average and 17 wins against only four losses.
“She can just do so many different things,” Jacobs said. “She has the ability to throw to all different zones at different speeds and really keep hitters off balance more than I’ve seen in the past.”
The opportunity comes on Saturday to tie and possibly break the school record of 15 straight wins at home against Indiana State (22-23, 9-12). Jacobs said breaking the record and winning a MVC tournament championship will both come down to one thing.
“The one thing we’ve had the ability to do throughout the year is play free and focus on ourselves,” Jacobs said. “We just need to make sure we stay there with our attention. Now there’s people talking about us. It can get you off track. Doing what you’ve been doing well is the answer.”