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FHSU on top of its game

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

The Fort Hays State University softball team has followed a mantra all season. Under second-year coach Erin Kinberger, the Tigers constantly have prepared every day, including a customary intense practice Tuesday afternoon. She continually asked for improvement and focus on details.

Kinberger hit the first ground ball of infield practice to junior third baseman Danie Brinkmann, a two-time all-MIAA player. Brinkmann caught the ball down the line, but was off balance.

Kinberger halted the drill, showed and told Brinkmann how to field the ball correctly. When freshman first baseman Tori Beltz made a diving stop, Kinberger yelled out a compliment. At one point, Kinberger dove in the dirt to show correct form for another Tiger.

"She has definitely instilled a winning mentality in all of us," sophomore center fielder Amanda Vaupel said.

When junior Jordan Jones, the team's No. 3 pitcher, struggled with setting her feet after taking grounders, Kinberger and Jones continued to work by themselves after the rest of infield practice finished.

The perpetual preparation and Kinberger's enthusiasm has produced virtually every game for the Tigers, 45-10 overall and ranked No. 10 in NCAA Division II, the highest ranking in school history.

"We are making sure that we are as prepared as we can be," freshman pitcher/designated hitter Paxton Duran said. "Seeing how it rolls from there, and it's been pretty good. That's what we have been working on. Making sure that we are really prepared and hoping to get those 'Ws.' "

This weekend, Fort Hays, the Central Region's overall No. 1 seed, plays host to a four-team pod in the NCAA Tournament. FHSU will play No. 8 Emporia State University (38-18) at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Tiger Stadium. No. 4 University of Central Oklahoma (42-11) faces No. 5 Minot State (40-9) at 3 p.m. Friday in the double-elimination bracket.

The winner advances to the Super Regionals, or Sweet 16, next weekend. If FHSU wins this weekend, it would host again.

It's the second NCAA appearance in Fort Hays softball history, first since 2003. This spring also is the first time since the 2003 Tiger baseball team FHSU has earned the right as a regional host in any sport. Last weekend, the Tigers won the MIAA softball conference tournament for the first time in school history and then vaulted five spots in this week's national poll.

"These girls really enjoy being first," Kinberger said. "They kind of set their eye on that, and you will hear them talk about it. Be like, 'We want to be the first team to do this, we want to be the first team to do that.'

"They want to make history, and that's something that we praise them for," she added. "I think being the first to host a region here is huge for them. I also think that it will be great with our fans here to get real loud, and just to support these kids, because God knows they want it more than anybody else does."

FHSU has brought in extra bleachers. Tickets are $8 for adults and $4 for kids from kindergarten to a senior in college. The Tigers, who have never won an NCAA softball tournament game in school history, went 13-3 at home this spring.

"Home field advantage is always a good thing," pitcher/outfielder Maddie Holub, the team's lone senior, said. "When we have our own crowd out there, it's obviously going to fuel a lot of fire. Hopefully it gives us a lot of advantage going into the regional tournament. That's a huge bonus for us. We are really excited about it."

Emporia State has reached the NCAA tournament 10 straight years, tied for the fifth-longest streak nationally. The Hornets are 31-21 all-time in NCAA play, including national runner-up appearances in 2006 and '08.

Last year, ESU finished 20-0 in MIAA play and advanced to the NCAA tournament in the first year of the Julie LeMaire era. LeMaire was the coach at FHSU from 2009-11 before she took over the Hornets, and Kinberger, then the assistant, became Fort Hays' head coach.

"We separate the emotion when it comes to the game," Kinberger said. "She is just like any other coach that we face, or any other team that we face. There is no added incentive. There is no drama behind it. We just go out there and play Fort Hays softball, and it doesn't matter who is front of us."

Fort Hays is 3-1 against Emporia this spring with a pair of road wins, 7-1 and 6-3, on March 15. In the MIAA tournament last Sunday, FHSU lost to Emporia State 1-0 in the first championship game and then defeated the Hornets 7-4 in the second title game in the double-elimination tournament. Then the NCAA released the bracket Monday morning.

"We have to go in there and act like we have never seen them before," Vaupel said. "Because when we go in knowing a team, then we put pressure on ourselves."

Fort Hays and Emporia feature two of the nation's top pitchers in Holub and ESU right-hander Karley Schmelzer.

Holub is 27-2 with a 0.77 earned-run average and collected MIAA Player of and Pitcher of the Year honors after she also hit .436 with 18 homers and 52 RBIs. Schmelzer is a three-time all-MIAA selection who went 31-9 with a 1.72 ERA. She led the nation in victories and set a school record.

Schmelzer graduated from Class 3A Garden Plain, while Holub went to 3A Thomas More Prep-Marian. The good friends were first team all-state selections in high school, played high school summer ball together and have enjoyed brilliant four-year collegiate careers.

"It's fun to go out and compete against each her," Holub said.

Emporia State also has senior catcher Amanda Self, the MIAA Defensive Player of the Year, sophomore shortstop Taylor Zordel (team-high .395 batting average) and junior utility player Tricia Vogel. All three players were first team all-MIAA selections.

Holub was the Tigers' lone first team selection and Vaupel made the second team, but five players made honorable mention as Fort Hays saw a 14-win improvement from last season and easily broke the school record for wins (35). This week, the Tigers focused on continued preparation to set more history this weekend.

"Last year, we had a lot of girls that wanted to win," Vaupel said. "This year, every single girl wants to win every single game, and our passion for the game is just so strong. We are all talking about trying to study for finals, and all we want to think about is playing regionals this weekend."