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FHSU softball stays strong

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Danie Brinkmann opened her career at NCAA Division I Creighton (Neb.) University. She spent one year with the Blue Jays where she hit .138 in 18 games with nine starts. Then she transferred to Fort Hays State University. Her first season, Brinkmann played for coach Julie LeMaire, now coaching at Emporia State University. Last spring, Erin Kinberger, the former assistant, took over for LeMaire.

Brinkmann saw the difference between Creighton's style and Kinberger -- one of the main reasons why Fort Hays has vaulted to No. 11 in NCAA Division II and is ranked for the first time in the program's 14-year NCAA history. The Tigers had received votes in previous years.

"Creighton, we didn't have a sense of camaraderie," Brinkmann said. "We didn't have a coach that cared about us. It was just you worked to get the job done, and you are disposable. But here, every single person individually means something to her and means something to each other.

"We are just a huge family and everybody looks out for everybody and nobody has a problem with anyone," she added. "We get on each other's nerves sometimes, but it's more like a sisterly love than anything. The heart and the mentality, that is what we are. That enables us to succeed and really use our talent."

Last season, the Tigers had just 13 players but finished 31-19, the second-best winning percentage in the program's NCAA tenure. This year, five players, Brinkmann, senior ace right-hander/left fielder Maddie Holub, junior catcher Callie Wright, sophomore center fielder Amanda Vaupel and junior shortstop Kellsi Olsen return and form what Kinberger calls the "backbone" of a 22-4 (4-0 MIAA) squad. Plus, Kinberger added 11 new players, a group that has bought into her intense style, winning mentality and family atmosphere.

"There is no doubt that if I called them over here right now and told them if you eat dirt, we are going to go to the 'ship, they wouldn't even hesitate," Kinberger said.

Fort Hays was expected to play host to Northeastern State (Okla.) University in a 2 p.m. doubleheader today at Tiger Stadium, the team's first home games since the season opener against University of Nebraska-Kearney on Feb. 8.

"All of the success that we have had this year is just because this team has just had a ton of heart," Holub said. "The girls we have are willing to work as one, and that's a big part of the success. Apart from that we have got some amazing athletes. We've picked up a lot of good freshmen and a lot of good junior transfers. The level of athleticism on this team has just increased from last year. Simple as that."

Holub, a four-year starter and the team's lone senior, is perhaps the country's best all-around player. She is 12-0 with an 0.80 earned-run average with a 132/22 strikeout-to-walk rate in 78.1 innings. Holub carries a .448 average with 11 homers, 28 RBIs and a .966 slugging percentage. In the latest release of national statistics, Holub ranks in the top-seven in homers per game, ERA and strikeouts per seven innings. Overall, the Tigers are sixth nationally in ERA and 16th in fielding percentage.

"We do talk a lot about the mind, a lot about the heart," Holub said. "We focus a lot on mentality, a winning mentality. If you go out there and want to win, you are going to be a success. ... The heart we have on this team is just insane. It's just a complete family atmosphere. We all treat each other as family. Coach K is basically like our mom. We play for each other, and we play for her."

Fort Hays became a closer unit during a week in Florida for games March 6 to 9. The Tigers practiced on the same field Kinberger, a Florida native, played her first softball game on.

"It was such an experience, and for me, too, to take the team back to my hometown and practice on the field, that I played my first softball game on," Kinberger, with tears in her eyes, said. "It was a really special moment and I think they know that."

The Tigers split with No. 11 University of Tampa and defeated No. 24 Winona State (Minn.) University 12-2. Plus, FHSU pulled off two one-run, extra inning victories and went 6-2 on the trip.

"It was fun to go out there and pretty much show Florida what little Hays, America, could do," freshman Paxton Duran said.

Vaupel carries a .400 average after she batted .333 last year. Both years Vaupel has ranked second on the team in average behind Holub.

"She is one of the best outfielders I have ever seen in Division II," Kinberger said.

Among the new pickups, Duran is 8-4 with a 2.13 ERA and carries a .284 average. Brinkmann is third on the team in batting at .342, while junior Bianca Adame, a pickup from Seward County Community College, plays in left and right field and carries a .316 average.

Junior Amy Dunn has handled some of the catching duties with Wright. Freshmen Tori Beltz and Courtney Dobson have started every game at first and second base, respectively.

"Bringing in the mentality that I wanted and that's just a dedicated ballplayer who is ready to win," Kinberger said.