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Final home games for Tiger softball Saturday

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Danie Brinkmann grew up in St. Louis and opened her career in 2010 at NCAA Division I Creighton. She played in 18 games as a true freshman, but didn't have a good experience with the Blue Jays. Brinkmann decided to transfer and was still young enough to play in college exposure tournaments.

Brinkmann considered staying in Omaha and playing for University of Nebraska-Omaha, then a strong Division II program, but UNO didn't have scholarship money left after Creighton's starting catcher transferred to the Mavericks.

Former Fort Hays State University coach Julie LeMaire, now Emporia State University's head coach, saw Brinkmann. Brinkmann liked LeMaire's personality, and LeMaire sold her on the Tiger program.

Current FHSU coach Erin Kinberger, then an assistant, was at her wedding in Florida. Without meeting Kinberger, Brinkmann committed to Fort Hays.

"It just fit perfectly," Brinkmann said.

She played shortstop her first season, redshirted the 2012 year because of injury and then started at third and first the last two years.

Brinkmann's story epitomizes the seven-person senior class for the Tigers, 26-17 overall, 15-9 MIAA and eighth in the Central Region rankings heading into the final weekend of the regular season.

FHSU celebrates senior day against rival University of Nebraska-Kearney (12-26, 9-15 MIAA). The doubleheader starts at 2 p.m. on Saturday. Then, FHSU travels to Kearney for a doubleheader starting at 11 a.m. on Sunday; those two games count as non-conference.

The senior class features Brinkmann, catcher Callie Wright, shortstop Kellsi Olsen, outfielder Bianca Adame, closer Katlyn Kern, pitcher Jordan Jones and reserve Amy Dunn. Like Brinkmann, all seven have either transferred and/or changed positions in their Tiger career.

"I don't think words can describe what those kids mean to me," Kinberger, in her third year as head coach, said. "I am just really appreciative of their character, their integrity, their support, their love, their loyalty. They have given everything to me, and really put me in a position to start my coaching career strong and confident."

The first four have all earned all-MIAA honors at least once in their careers, while Kern has tied the single season school record with four saves this year. Jones has been a solid presence on the team, while Dunn has displayed high character, including donating bone marrow in the offseason.

Adame, Kern, Jones and Dunn are in their second years after transferring from junior colleges, while Brinkmann, Wright and Olsen are three-year starters. Kinberger heard multiple negative sayings about junior college players, but has immensely enjoyed the transfers.

"Those four transfers have completely changed my entire mentality on juco kids," Kinberger said. "I truly could not have asked - and I have told them from basically six months in of recruiting them -- that they have wiped that slate completely clean."

Wright is the lone senior who has spent her entire career with FHSU. A catcher in the younger ranks, Wright played outfield as a freshman before moving to catcher after all-region catcher Malinee Powell abruptly quit the team before the 2012 season. When Wright was a freshman, Kinberger was uncertain whether she could become a strong catcher.

About two weeks before the school year started, Powell called Kinberger about midnight and told her she wasn't playing. Kinberger called her dad, who panicked. Kinberger had just 13 players, numbers she called "really scary." But she instantly felt OK and knew Wright could get the job done.

Wright started all 50 games in 2012, and emerged as a great leader. Kinberger called Wright taking over "one of the most defining moments" of her coaching career and the catcher "grew more than any ballplayer I have ever seen." Wright has struggled offensively, but has worked on having a clear mentality for each at-bat. She has responded with three clutch hits, including two homers, in road games the last three weeks.

"Been kind of a reality check, like 'This is it, this is your chance,'" Wright said. "I knew the opportunity was going to come, and I was going to take advantage of it."

Brinkmann and Olsen have interconnected careers. In 2011, Brinkmann hit .323 as the starting shortstop. Then, Olsen came in for the 2012 season from Glendale (Ariz.) Community College as a second baseman and backup shortstop.

But Brinkmann tore her rotator cuff while weightlifting in the winter and then broke her ankle in February and took a medical redshirt. Olsen moved over to shortstop and has started all 152 games since.

Brinkmann has battled through multiple injuries, including a torn labrum, an ankle injury and even a broken front tooth from tripping on a curb. Because of injury, if Brinkmann sleeps on her arm certain ways, it immediately goes numb. While Brinkmann has gotten down and depressed with some of the injuries, she has never wanted to step aside from playing. Transferring to FHSU gave a "renewed love" for softball. A two-time all-conference honorable mention selection, Brinkmann has batted at least .301 in every season.

More than anything, the seniors have delivered the greatest three-year run in softball annals. FHSU is 104-48 since Kinberger took over as coach, including a school record 47-12 mark last spring.

Renovations, including additional seating, came to Tiger Stadium this year. FHSU ranks 10th nationally in Division II and first in the MIAA in attendance this spring.

"I like the fact that I can go grocery shopping or go walk next door to our gas station, and I can see someone kind of look at me, and then light up when they see that I have softball or something on me," Brinkmann said. "I don't know them, but they know my name. They will tell me, 'Great game, way to get that play, I saw that play. I saw that hit, tell so and so to keep up the good work.' "