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Tiger softball set for MIAA tourney

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Fort Hays State University softball coach Erin Kinberger sat in her office one morning last week and discussed the NCAA Division II Central Region rankings. FHSU has remained No. 8 in the first two regional polls; the top eight in each region advance to the NCAA Division II tournament. Like many, Kinberger is slightly uncertain how the rankings are constructed.

"I know we are good enough to go the region and compete," Kinberger said. "There is no doubt about that. I just didn't know if other people were going to see the same thing. The region is always such a cluster in terms of it's hard to understand where you are going to really be. If it was black and white, it would be a lot better, but it's just not."

Starting Thursday, FHSU can cement a spot in the NCAA tournament -- or leave the choice in the hands of the regional committee. The Tigers, which completed the regular season 28-18, 17-9 MIAA, received the No. 4 seed for the conference tournament.

FHSU will play fifth-seeded University of Central Missouri (27-21, 14-12 MIAA) in the first round of the double elimination tournament. Start time is 6 p.m. at the Blue Valley Recreation Complex in Blue Springs, Mo. Fort Hays is the defending conference tournament champion, was second in 2011 and 13-7 collectively in the last four tournaments.

The Central Region consists of the MIAA, Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference and Great American Conference. The winners of all three conference tournaments earn bids.

"Excited is an understatement," junior right-hander Kelsey Kimminau said.

Fort Hays is one of four MIAA teams ranked in the top eight regionally with the latest poll due out this afternoon. Emporia State is No. 1, University of Central Oklahoma is No. 5 and Missouri Western stands sixth.

The MIAA usually doesn't qualify four teams for the NCAA tournament, but this year could be an exception.

Barring upsets, Fort Hays stands a solid chance to reach the NCAA field. The Tigers have 17 in-region losses, while Southern Arkansas and East Central, ranked ninth and tenth, respectively, have at least 20.

"Both us and Mo. West probably deserve to go to the region, in my opinion," Kinberger said.

Last week and following Saturday's senior day doubleheader sweep against University of Nebraska-Kearney, multiple Fort Hays players were excited to play Missouri Western again this week.

"Obviously when we face them in the tournament, we are going to know, not only are we fighting for that game, but that it's probably going to have some regional standings as well," Kinberger said. "I look forward to the opportunity to play them and earn our way through the conference tournament and into the region."

Fort Hays and Missouri Western have met up in multiple big games the last four years, including at least one meeting in every conference tournament. Since the start of the 2011 season, FHSU is 4-7 against the Griffons and All-American right-hander Jackie Bishop, who is 5-3 with a 1.63 earned-run average in her career against the Tigers.

In 2011, FHSU went 1-2 against the Griffons, including a 3-2 win in the conference tournament.

Two years ago, FHSU finished 1-3 versus Missouri Western, including a season-ending 14-5 loss to the Griffons. In 2013, Fort Hays went 3-0 against the Griffons, including two classic wins against Bishop. FHSU defeated Bishop 2-1 in 12 innings and then 3-0 in the MIAA tournament.

This season, Bishop beat FHSU twice, 3-0 and 5-2, on April 4 in a doubleheader in St. Joseph, Mo.

"Jackie Bishop, she is a great pitcher and we definitely want another chance at her, especially since our bats are getting back to what Fort Hays softball is like, and we are ready," sophomore designated player Tori Beltz said.

The first hurdle is the Mules. Fort Hays opened the MIAA slate with four straight home wins against University of Central Missouri (11-3, 8-6) and Southwest Baptist (Mo.) University   (9-5, 6-0) on March 9-10. FHSU hasn't won four in a row over a weekend since. It would take at least four victories to win a championship weekend.

"We want to start the season that way and finish the season that way, too," Beltz said. "That would be awesome."

This marks the first time FHSU and UCM have met up in the conference tournament since the first game in 2010. Jennies senior infielder Braylyn Bivens, a returning all-conference player, missed the first matchup against the Tigers with a hamstring injury, but has played in 33 games.

Junior Jakki Prater paces Central Missouri with a .366 average, 20 homers and 58 RBIs. She is two away from tying the school mark for single season RBIs and four away from tying the MIAA home run record. Prater is 15-11 with a 4.11 earned-run average, while junior Katie Shockley stands 11-4, 3.64 with a no-hitter.

FHSU counters with sophomore Paxton Duran (16-8, 3.01 ERA, one no-hitter) and junior Kelsey Kimminau (10-7, 2.97 ERA). Sophomore second baseman Courtney Dobson carries a team-high .350 average.