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Tiger softball gets Pitt in MIAA first round

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

On Tuesday night, the Fort Hays State University softball team practiced under the lights at Tiger Stadium as the clock stretched to 9 p.m. The practice was preparation for this week's MIAA postseason tournament at the Blue Valley Recreation Complex in Overland Park, Kan.

Last weekend, FHSU ended the best regular season by winning percentage for any sport in the school's seven-plus years in the MIAA.

"It's awesome," freshman first baseman Tori Beltz said. "We are definitely the best ranked team in Fort Hays (softball) history. Going into that with that mentality, we just want to keep winning and doing well."

Fort Hays, ranked No. 11 in NCAA Division II and first in the Central Rankings, is 41-9 overall and 21-5 in league play. University of Central Oklahoma won the league with a 23-3 mark, but FHSU stands higher in the all-important regional rankings because of a stronger non-conference resume.

Fort Hays will play No. 7 seed Pittsburg State University at 6 p.m. on Thursday. Win or lose, FHSU will play again at 8 p.m. in the double elimination tournament.

"We go there with one mission: one game at a time, everybody 19 strong," second-year coach Erin Kinberger said. "Go for the 'W,' and that's what we will do. We are going to work our tails off. That's just one thing that we are dedicated to doing. This week, we are going to work, work and work, so that when we go to the conference tournament, we feel great."

Fort Hays has finished second in the conference tournament the last two years. This year, FHSU split a home doubleheader with Pittsburg State (28-20, 16-12 MIAA) on April 13. The conference tournament winner receives an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament next week. FHSU, with just one NCAA appearance in school annals, is in line for its second berth.

However, remaining No. 1 in the region would keep the Tigers at home for the first week of NCAA play and the Super Regionals, or Round of 16. Being at least the region's second seed secures home field for the first week. This weekend could produce the first meetings between Fort Hays and UCO this year. The original doubleheader was postponed because of weather. FHSU wanted to make up the games, but the Bronchos declined.

"The harder you work, the luckier you get," Kinberger said. "Everybody can use not only the skill that you get from hard work, but the luck, too. I don't feel like there is any one particular thing that we will work on, but we are just going to come out here and play the game that we love and be dedicated to getting better at it everyday."

Twelve new players have supplemented a veteran corps that includes the Tigers' lone senior Maddie Holub, a likely All-American. Junior outfielder Bianca Adame, one of the newcomers, has a school-record 35 stolen bases and stands 15th nationally in stolen bases per game.

"That commends the 12 players that we brought into this program," Kinberger said of the season. "They came in and bought in from the start. This is what happens when kids buy into a program."

The right-handed Holub, owner of 21 school records, is 24-1 with a 0.77 earned-run average. She carries a .451 batting average with a .908 slugging percentage. Nationally, Holub ranks second in ERA, third in strikeouts per seven innings, fifth in victories, seventh in slugging percentage and 11th in homers (18).

Freshman right-hander Kyndel Shelburn, 12-8 with a 2.93 ERA and second in conference in strikeouts per seven innings pitched behind Holub, is the Gorillas' likely starter.

"We have got nothing to lose," Holub said. "We are going to be one of the top seeds, and we can't play like it. We just need to play our game and we can't overlook anybody. We have got a strong conference. Any team is capable of beating any other team, and so the key is definitely going in, looking game-to-game and playing our own ball."