Welcome to the ‘Dale 2017: Nothing Will Eclipse Saluki Sports This Season

You’ve probably heard that thirteen-thousand screaming persons will pack SIU’s Saluki Stadium early
Chris Barron
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You’ve probably heard that thirteen-thousand screaming persons will pack SIU’s Saluki Stadium early this fall to view spectacular entertainment while drinking a cold one.

That would be for the entertainment spectacle of the Mayan jaguar god trying to devour our one and only sun during what we now call a total eclipse. As per usual, we modern homo sapiens know the end of that attack movie already: The cat finally coughs up the sun. That jaguar won’t return (to the Southern Illinois region at least) till seven years hence in the sequel: Total Eclipse Part II.

SIU’s football team, meanwhile, kicks off their season Saturday, September 9 at 6 p.m. against Mississippi Valley State.

That will be the unofficial start of a Saluki-sports entertainment season that no other entertainment offering you’ll run into during your upcoming nine-month stay in beautiful Southern Illinois will eclipse.

The ancient Mayans poked their poor dogs in the ribs to make them bark at the moon (jaguar) and drive the cat away. Incidentally, Dawg football fans will use the same vocals (minus the irritation of being poked by a stick) when they welcome the Northern Iowa Panthers on September 30 during Family Weekend.

This could be a breakthrough season for the thirty-one-year-old coach of the Dawgs, Nick Hill. The Dawgs were only 4-7 last year. But they play in the Missouri Valley Football Conference— the Football Championship Subdivision equivalent of the Southeastern Conference— and will need only a kinder schedule and improved defense to make it to the NCAA National Football Playoffs. Four of the Missouri Valley’s ten teams made it to postseason play in 2016. Expect at least as many to do so in 2017.

Hill has his Dawgs primed to howl in a rather wide-open Missouri Valley race. North Dakota State will be the toughest team in the league again. (They’ve won four of the last five national championships.) But guess what? Through a quirk in the schedule, SIU will not play the Bison this season.

Southern plays Missouri Valley football powers Northern Iowa, Illinois State, and Youngstown State at the friendly confines of Saluki Stadium.

Speaking of the seven years until the next total eclipse, it is going on eight years since the Dawgs’ gridiron crew went to the playoffs. So the time is right for Hill’s Sam Straub-led team to make a push out of the eclipse of losing records, and into the playoff sun.

Straub is a 6’4”, 235-pound National Football League quarterback template who proved his worth at the end of last season.

Straub threw for more than 1,000 yards in the final three games of the 2016 season, one of which was a win against twenty-four-ranked Western Illinois. In that game, Straub threw for 450 yards and four touchdowns.

Bruising Jonathan Mixon (5’11”, 222 pounds) will cover the running-back position. Mixon ran for ninety-six yards and two touchdowns during that game with Western Illinois. For a change of pace, Hill can insert junior Daquan Isom— only 5’8” and 178 pounds, but with blazing speed and, amazingly, one of the stronger backs on the roster.

Blocking for the Straub, Mixon, and Isom are a vet pair of offensive tackles with herculean stature. Senior Austin Olsen (6’6”, 315 pounds) and Devondre Seymour (6’8”, 298 pounds) are National Football League-sized. Jack White will take time off from alternative-rock touring to play center for the Dawgs’ offense.

Just kidding. SIU’s White (6’3”, 305 pounds) transferred from Copiah-Lincoln junior college in Mississippi to win a center spot this past spring.

Another transfer may help Hill’s receiving corps. Raphael Leonard (6’3”, 190 pounds) looked good in April’s spring drills. If he makes it through summer classes, he will match senior star Darrell James (6’0”, 192 pounds) and sophomore Landon Lenoir (5’11” 179 pounds).

SIU offense averaged 31 points per game last year— that’s the good news. The bad news is that the Dawgs’ defense gave up 30.73. Southern finished 4-7, but many of those losses were in the one-score range. If the defense can cut opponents’ scoring by ten points, Southern may be on their way to the playoffs.

SIU will return a veteran and talented defensive-back and linebacker crew. Craig James (5’10”, 187 pounds) was picked by as one of the top five cornerbacks in Football Championship Subdivision nationally. Safety Jeremy Chinn (6’1”, 200 pounds) was on the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s all-freshman team.

Kyron Watson and Cody Crider will patrol the inside-linebacker spots, and Airan Reed (6’2”, 225 pounds) will man the outside-backer position— so no sweat there. But the Dawgs need an outstanding defensive end who can get after opposition quarterbacks. It could be red-shirt freshman Jordan Berner (6’6”, 260 pounds) or incoming transfer Quadarius Reed (6’3”, 280 pounds).

Youngsters will patrol the middle, too: ZeVeyon Furcron and Blake Parzych. Furcron (besides having the greatest name of the new defensive players) set a school squat-lift record at 750 pounds. Parzych is strong, too, so the defensive-tackle position is set.

Women’s volleyball had been one of the fall’s star sports attractions under former coach Justin Ingram. His team was 21-13 (12-6 in the Valley) this past year, and returned six seniors this season. But one problem is gumming up the works. Ingram got another job at the University of Illinois Chicago last spring.

SIU hired North Dakota State University head coach Kari Thompson, who was somewhat successful in her coaching tenure at the Fargo, North Dakota school. A couple of SIU players decide to transfer when Ingram left, but Thompson has managed to retain five of Ingram’s talented recruits. Keera Clarke, Kiera James, and Maggie Nedoma are the pick of the litter.

Not to be eclipsed, the next big SIU sports are men’s and women’s basketball. The men’s team finished 22-10 two years ago and looked to improve on that last season. It didn’t work out that way, however.

Coach Barry Hinson’s Dawgs finished 17-16 last year overall, and 9-9 in the Valley for a tie for third place. With what they have coming back, and if their new incoming transfers are cleared to play after summer classes, the Saluki-hoops program will be ready to win twenty games or more.

It helps that one-time Missouri Valley big dog Wichita State University decided to move on to the American Athletic Conference. The Valley countered by signing up mid-major hoops power Valparaiso University of Indiana. The move could give teams like the up-and-coming Salukis a chance to move into second, or another third-slot finish.

Look for a veteran SIU team, spiced up by some exciting transfer action.

Starters Armon Fletcher (6’4”) Sean Lloyd (6’5”) will team up with redshirted junior Marcus Bartley (6’4”) to give the Dawgs one of the tallest backcourts in the league. Also, red-shirt senior Tyler Smithpeters (6’4”, who sat out last season with an injury) returns as a sixth man who can shoot the three.

The frontline will miss last year’s all-Valley pick Sean O’Brien, who graduated last spring, but return all-newcomer team member Thik Bol (6’8”). Bol plays above the rim and can catch and slam with the best in the nation. His challenge is to develop an outside shooting game, since he is projected to play at the power-forward spot vacated by O’Brien.

Incoming junior-college star Kavion Pippen (6’10”) will replace Bol at center. Pippen is the nephew of former Chicago Bulls star Scottie Pippen, so expect some uncle-and-nephew reunions at Saluki home games, and when the Dawgs take on Missouri Valley rival Loyola University of Chicago.

Women’s basketball will be young, but will return all-conference star guard Kylie Giebelhausen, Celina VanHyfte inside, and steady guard Olivia Bowling.

SIU recruited well last fall. One of the four new freshmen, Edwardsville’s Criste’On Waters (6’1”), is a multitalented star already. Head coach Cindy Stein will count on the explosive athlete to immediately help her team out.

But the upcoming season may be difficult since the Lady Pups are coming off a 16-15 record last year (10-8 in conference play) and will be an inexperienced club facing the rough-and-tumble Valley schedule.

Also starting up in the fall is cross-country. Both men and women are coached by Kevin Cataldo and supervised by Kathleen Raske. Both squads were down last season, yet are looking to rebound with a young but talented roster.

The men’s team finished seventh of ten teams in the Missouri Valley cross-country championships late last fall, and the women finished ninth. The men return sophomore Josh Maier, who finished thirteenth individually in those championships, and the ladies return junior Shannon Effron and freshman talent Kelly O’Shea.

As cross country ends, men and women’s swimming begins. The ladies were top Dawg in this sport, finishing second in the Missouri Valley and returning the star trio of freshman Laura Carver, Samantha Parsons, and top butterfly freshman in the Valley, Audrey Snyder.

Because the Missouri Valley does not have enough teams offering swimming and diving, the men’s team competes in the Mid-American Conference. The Dawgs finished fifth last year and look like they will step it up with young talent featuring the Mid-American Conference’s freshman diver of the year, Kai Hoffmann-Dussome, and freestyle star Reilly Garman.

Spring brings four other sports into view— softball, baseball, golf, and track and field.

Softball was the big star in the spring. Coach Kerri Blaylock got her charges going at the end of the year and, though seeded third for the Missouri Valley softball tournament, the Salukis won it and met number-thirteen ranked Mississippi in the NCAAs. Though the Dawgs were beaten in that game, they return a bunch of young players like freshmen Susie Baranski and sophomore slugger Katelyn Massa, and will give it a run again in 2018.

Baseball was a disappointing 27-30 overall, and 10-10 in conference play after being picked second preseason. Head coach Ken Henderson would have returned a great team if the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft hadn’t gutted his talented roster.

Senior Chad Whitmer, for example, was drafted by the New York Yankees in the tenth round. That’s great for Whitmer, who earned a $133,000 signing bonus with the Yanks. And two talented undergrads, slugger Greg Lambert and closer Ryan Netemeyer, were also drafted. So Henderson may have to comb the junior-college ranks to fill out his club if those two decide to take the money and run.

A surprise spring powerhouse the past few years has been men’s golf. They won the Missouri Valley tournament in 2016 and ended in fifth this past year under the coaching of Justin Fetcho. Fetcho has reloaded big time for 2018, signing an incredible three junior-college all-Americans for this coming season.

Women’s golf finished a disappointing sixth, playing a bunch of freshmen, so coach Alexis Mihelich has some hope but also some recruiting work to do.

Track and field had a great season both on the men’s and women’s sides. Kathleen Raske’s teams finished third in a tough league. Again, the women and men had great throwers, coached by J.C. Lambert.

Lambert protégé and senior Freya Block finished seventh nationally in the women’s hammer throw, and junior Jared Kern was an indoor NCAA all-American. In addition to Kern’s return in 2018, Raske looks to sophomore Warren Hazel, who was the Missouri Valley 400-meter champion.

The women’s team includes the fabulous Missouri Valley 4x100 meter-relay champ team of Mystique Thompson, freshman Shafiqua Maloney, sophomore Tyjuana Eason, and sophomore Bri’Anna Branch. Branch is also super in her individual event, the 400-meter dash. She won the Valley event in 54.25 seconds in 2017.

So, students new and returning, you’ve got some options about how to use your paid-up SIU identification card sports-wise. Make certain you have eclipse-certified glasses tight on your head August 21 when watching the astronomical event of the year. We want your eyes healthy enough to enjoy the all of the upcoming Saluki sports. No glasses are needed to view them— though they will indeed shine brightly.

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