Tiger softball advances to semis
By CONOR NICHOLL
Throughout the season, Fort Hays State University junior third baseman Danie Brinkmann has batted fourth behind senior Maddie Holub, one of the nation’s top hitters and the MIAA Player and Pitcher of the Year.
“Maddie has absolutely been on fire this year,” Brinkmann said.
Sometimes coaches have intentionally walked Holub to face Brinkmann, a two-time all-MIAA honorable mention selection. On Friday, Emporia State University decided to walk Holub to load the bases with two outs in the sixth inning.
Then Brinkmann laced a 1-0 changeup from Hornet senior ace Karley Schmelzer into left-center for a two-run single that broke a 3-3 tie. Fort Hays held on to win, 5-3, in the first round of the NCAA Division II Central Region tournament at Tiger Stadium. It marked the first NCAA tournament victory in school history.
“Before in the past, I have tried my hardest to obviously make them pay for it,” Brinkmann said. “This time, I felt like this sort of determination. … I am going to absolutely make them pay for it.”
Brinkmann’s hit provided the capper on a well-played, back-and-forth game.
“That’s why we do have her in that spot in the batting lineup because she can settle down,” second-year Tiger coach Erin Kinberger said. “She can clear the five inches between the ears and then punish people for making that mistake.”
Fort Hays trailed 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2, but tied the game three separate occasions before Brinkmann’s hit gave FHSU its first lead of the contest.
“I have coached Maddie and Danie for multiple years,” Emporia State coach Julie LeMaire, the Tigers’ coach from 2009-11, said. “I would do it again if the opportunity arose. I feel like Maddie is a player that gets hot and rises up in that situation. Karley had done a great job of handling (Danie) all day long. I felt like at that point in time, that would be a position where (Holub) could get hot. (The walk) gives us a force out at any position, so I felt like it was the right move to make at that time.”
The Tigers now have 10 comeback victories, including back-to-back games. The first came in the second MIAA championship contest against Emporia State on Sunday.
“There is a no-quit attitude,” Kinberger said. “These kids want these games. They want the 'Ws,' and we are not leaving the ball field without one. Definitely, it has been like this all season, and we are going to continue to roll with it.”
Fort Hays, ranked No. 1 in the Central Region and 10th nationally, moves on to face fourth-seeded University of Central Oklahoma (43-11) at 1 p.m. Saturday.
“It’s not like a sigh of relief,” Kinberger said of the victory. “Because I think when we took the field today, we knew the outcome, we knew what we were going to make happen, so obviously tomorrow, we are going after one game tomorrow, and then from there, we will meet whoever it is in the championship.”
No. 8 Emporia State (38-19) will play fifth-seeded Minot State (40-10) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. UCO defeated Minot State 2-0 in the first contest Friday.
Throughout the spring, Fort Hays’ motto has been “19 strong,” with 16 players and three coaches. The motto has often appeared on Facebook and in Twitter hashtags. Before the game, freshman Adara Erickson said Fort Hays is now “Hays strong,” an apt description for a crowd of 443 fans, thought, by some, to be the largest in Tiger softball history.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking," Holub said. "It is going to be with a crowd like this, but you settle in pretty quickly. You feed off of it more than anything, so it’s good to have everybody there. I love the large crowd.”
Schmelzer and Holub ranked 1-2 nationally in victories and combined for all-conference honors in seven of their eight collegiate years. However, Holub allowed three single runs in the first, second and fifth, just the third time this season she had allowed more than two runs in an outing. Schmelzer (31-10) walked six batters, while Holub (28-2) issued two walks, two wild pitches and hit three batters.
“A great, great game,” LeMaire said. “Battling some issues there in terms of umpires maybe haven’t seen this particular pitching out of us, so I think maybe that was a little bit of a challenge for us.”
Emporia State scored a run in the first off a hit batter, walk and a bloop single from freshman designated player Cacy Williams that ticked off the glove of Tiger sophomore center fielder Amanda Vaupel.
Fort Hays tied the game in the first on a bases loaded walk from freshman designated player Paxton Duran. ESU tacked on another run in the second off a wild pitch, but Fort Hays tied the game in the third on a RBI single from freshman first baseman Tori Beltz.
In the top of the fourth, FHSU junior shortstop Kellsi Olsen delivered an inning-ending double play. Senior center fielder Jessica Brewer hit a liner that went over Brinkmann’s head. However, Olsen dove and made the catch behind Brinkmann. Then, she threw to second base to double off junior second baseman Taylor Reichard.
“It was just absolutely settling,” Brinkmann said. “When something like that happens, you just without a doubt know that we are going to get it done. As soon as Kellsi caught that ball, all of us had each other’s backs."
Emporia scored again in the fifth before FHSU tied the game in the sixth on a bloop single into short center from Duran. Reichard nearly caught the ball, but it bounced off her glove.
“I think they had it, but sometimes the ball falls where it needs to fall,” Duran said.
Duran was 1 of 12 in her last six games before Friday, including a bases loaded strikeout versus Schmelzer in the MIAA championship last weekend. Duran went 2 of 2 with a walk and two RBI on Friday, tying her career high for times on base and RBI in a single game.
“Today, I was saying, ‘I am going to get my job done,’ ” Duran said. “My job is to get the ball in play, and I don’t care how ugly it was, or what it needed to be, but I put it in play. That’s all that was on my mind – was ‘I am going to hit this girl.’”
An inning later, Emporia State issued Holub the intentional walk.
“I really, really trust Danie to hit behind me,” Holub said.
The crowd, which filled the stands behind home plate and the auxiliary bleachers down the lines, upped the noise when Brinkmann came up – and grew even louder after her hit.
“I felt like it was a duty to my team to absolutely get it done,” Brinkmann said.