116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s softball team enters the Missouri Valley Conference tournament on Friday with numerous postseason awards in tow, 30 regular-season wins and the tournament’s second seed.
Needless to say, it’s been a special season for the Panthers.
Potential All-America shortstop Sammey Bunch was named the MVC’s player of the year on Wednesday after hitting .457 with 21 home runs. Starting pitcher Kailyn Packard was named pitcher and newcomer of the year after going 20-5 with a 1.67 ERA and 162 strikeouts in 155 innings pitched.
Led by Ryan Jacobs, UNI (30-17, 20-7) also received the Coaching Staff of the Year award while five players were named All-MVC first-team — Bunch, Packard, Emmy Wells, Kamryn Shaffer, Adara Opiola — and sophomore third baseman Brooke Snider was named to the second team.
“Oh, it was just so special,” Packard said of the postseason awards. “One of my teammates actually called me (Wednesday) morning and she told me. Then, just going on that MVC website and seeing all my teammates' faces was truly a moment I’ll never forget.”
Coupled with Bunch’s All-America-level performance at the plate this season, Packard’s all-conference performance solidified the Panthers as legitimate contenders to make the NCAA tournament.
Had it not been for the pandemic though, the Beloit, Wis., native likely would have never transferred to UNI. But, after Missouri-Kansas City’s pitching coach resigned with the university in the midst of a hiring freeze, she went looking for a new home and found one in Cedar Falls.
Since becoming a Panther, Packard has seen her ERA fall more than an entire run below her previous career-best of 2.76 in 2019, and attributes the success to pitching coach Monica Wright.
“She definitely turned me into a competitor,” Packard said. “As far as physical ability, a ton hasn’t changed, I just turned into a competitor that I don’t think I was before.”
The Panthers’ No. 2 seed places them in the semifinals opposite top-seed Illinois State (31-9, 17-5), putting just two wins between them and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Should UNI come up short, even with its RPI of 55, Jacobs said there are no guarantees when it comes to needing an at-large bid.
“You know, that’s such an inexact science I feel like. I don’t know,” Jacobs said. “I would say we’re in a position where our RPI is as competitive as it ever has been going into this point of the season. But, you just can’t ever count on it. You just don’t know. We just take care of our business and we have control of the situation at this point and we just need to do what we can to control it.”