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UNI enters MVC softball tournament as the favorite needing to win it for an NCAA bid
Top-seeded Panthers had record-setting regular season
CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s record-setting softball regular season is now in the rearview mirror.
Its focus now is on a high-stakes Missouri Valley Conference tournament that presents the Panthers (38-11, 26-1) their only path to an NCAA regional bid.
“At this point we’re on the outside looking in,” UNI Coach Ryan Jacobs said regarding his team’s chances at an at-large bid. “We’ve talked about it the last two years (that) we’re not going to rely on an at-large bid at UNI.
“We need to focus on that MVC tournament championship. Which is very elusive. We know that. That’s our biggest challenge and that’s what we’re focused on right now.”
UNI’s challenge in the conference tournament
Jacobs’ use of the word “elusive” regarding an MVC tournament championship is appropriate. While he has overseen the rise of UNI’s program to a regular contender in the MVC, the Panthers have won only one MVC tournament — in 2013 — in his 15 seasons.
Added to the equation this year, and going forward, is the conference’s expansion to 12 teams changing its tournament bracket. The change eliminates the top two seeds’ triple bye and will require three wins in three days, rather than two wins in two days, to earn the league’s automatic bid.
“It’s definitely not quite the advantage that it used to be, (but) I guess I’m looking forward to that because we didn’t fare well in that (old bracket),” Jacobs said. “Now you gotta win three (games). It’s just like sweeping a team in the Valley conference regular season, except you have to make a lot more adjustments a lot quicker and there’s a lot more on the line.”
Working in UNI’s favor is a recent 4-2 win at Iowa.
Jacobs explained how the environment at Pearl Field and the dynamics of a rivalry game provided his team a worthwhile experience ahead of this week’s conference tournament.
“Bigger crowd, little bit more intensity, a lot on the line (and) playing against a really good Hawkeyes team,” Jacobs said. “So, everything just lined up for us to have a little bit more of a dress rehearsal and we didn’t handle it as great as I wanted us to, which is awesome, because we haven’t handled that championship game in the Valley as well as we would like to in the last two years as well.
“Hopefully it sets up perfectly for us to get the kinks out early.”
Why UNI is favored in the MVC tournament
While questions about the Panthers’ ability to handle the environment and stakes of the MVC tournament understandably exist, there’s still no doubting their status as clear favorites.
Catcher Alexis Pupillo, pitcher Samantha Heyer and left fielder Mya Dodge are front-runners for MVC freshman, pitcher and player of the year, respectively.
Pupillo and Dodge have combined for 31 home runs and 113 runs batted in this season. Meanwhile, Heyer’s 252 strikeouts rank first in the MVC and fourth in the nation.
Further illustrating Heyer’s dominance was a recent stat — before last weekend’s final regular-season series against Evansville — that opponents were hitting just .110 against her riseball this season with a nearly 41-percent whiff rate.
“You’re talking about one pitch and that’s where the analytics and everything where it’s like, ‘Man, we don’t really want that information out there,’ (but) it is going out there,” Jacobs said. “There’s a bigger picture to it. She has three pitches that are devastating. So, go ahead (and) focus on that one because you’ll figure it out, you’ll know what they’re sitting on and you’ll be able to use the other pitch and it’s just as dirty.”
MVC softball tournament bracket
UNI begins MVC tournament play Thursday at 10 a.m. in the quarterfinals against the winner of Drake vs. Evansville. Southern Illinois hosts this season’s tournament at Charlotte West Stadium in Carbondale, Ill. All the games will be streamed on ESPN+.