Tigers earn pair of Friday wins
By CONOR NICHOLL
Before the season started, Gene Fleharty, a longtime science professor and donor at Fort Hays State University, came to the Tiger softball office. Fleharty told second-year coach Erin Kinberger he believed FHSU could win 40 games, a milestone the Tigers had never reached in their NCAA Division II history.
"I am up for the challenge," Kinberger said.
On Friday, Fort Hays hosted a celebratory day on the season's final home regular season doubleheader -- and met Fleharty's goal. FHSU defeated Lincoln 8-1 and 9-0 in five innings at Tiger Stadium. The Fan Appreciation Day and Senior Day for standout Maddie Holub, the team's lone senior, moved Fort Hays to 41-9.
"She is incredible," freshman first baseman Tori Beltz said. "She is somebody that you want to be like. She inspires everybody to go out and work hard everyday to be as awesome as she is."
Fort Hays had 250 people, easily the season's largest crowd, to watch Holub and the Tigers, ranked No. 11 nationally and No. 1 in the Central Region. The Tigers' .820 winning percentage is the best by any Fort Hays sport since the school switched to the MIAA nearly eight years ago.
"We want people to be a part of the program," Kinberger said. "We want people to feel a part of this family, and we truly are grateful for them coming out and supporting us, because the more support you have, the further we will go. I always tell the kids, treat other people the way that you want to be treated. Let's make everybody feel a part of this program."
FHSU earned at least the second seed in this week's conference tournament in Overland Park, Kan. The Tigers (21-5 MIAA) could win the league based upon University of Central Oklahoma's results this weekend. Lincoln fell to 14-23-1, 6-18 MIAA.
"We always knew what was possible," Holub said. "We come in every year thinking that it is. Coming out the first day of practice, seeing the amazing talent that we brought in and how well we have worked together as a team, we knew we were going to go far this year from the get-go and have just proven ourselves, and we are going to go a lot farther."
The day belonged to Holub, a Thomas More Prep-Marian graduate, likely All-American and holder of 21 school records -- 10 pitching and 11 offensive. Holub improved to 24-1 with a complete game in the first contest and worked the first two innings of Game 2 to lower her earned-run average to 0.77. As well, Holub went 3 of 5 with three runs scored, two RBIs and two doubles. Holub finished the regular season with a .451 average.
"Watching her over the years, she just keeps growing and becomes a stronger player," Lincoln coach Nicole Stacey said. "What impresses me about this team is they all have each other's back, and you can see that through every play, everything, and I think a lot of that has to do with Maddie."
On the right-center field fence, the team had a big poster that said 'We Love U Maddie.' " Instead of the word 'love,' it had a heart with Holub's No. 9 written inside. A big, yellow M was on the backstop fence and "Get On Your Feet for No. 9 Maddie Holub" was written on the cement in front of the home plate bleachers.
"It really shows how much they care for me," Holub said. "It's such a great feeling. Seeing the fan base -- our crowd is amazing today. We had a big number of people here and just to know that number of people are backing me is a great feeling."
In Game 1, Fort Hays scored two runs in the first and six in the sixth against losing pitcher Clair Lorenz (9-9). Junior outfielder Bianca Adame delivered a key hit in the sixth inning when she lined a two-out, two-run single into right-center field.
After the win, Kinberger took the ball to Fleharty, a fixture with his wife Jo Ann, at many Tiger sporting events.
"Things like that, that support, that belief in us, that belief in myself and what I recruited, that's what makes programs great," Kinberger said.
Between games, the team formed a semicircle around the pitching circle for Holub. The Tigers presented her with several scrapbooks, pictures and flowers. Her teammates would like her to come back next year and help coach. Holub, not known for a lot of crying, shed some tears.
FHSU sports information director Ryan Prickett read off a long list of Holub's accomplishments, including a Division II record two perfect games in one week earlier this spring.
"Her character," Kinberger said of Holub's most impressive attribute. "Just the person that she is. Not only is she a phenomenal athlete, she is a phenomenal person."
In Game 2, FHSU scored two runs in the first, four in the second and three in fifth. Beltz and sophomore center fielder Amanda Vaupel homered. Freshman Paxton Duran (15-7) pitched the last three innings for the win and Starr McLeod (4-8) took the loss. Afterward, the team gathered in right-center in front of the Holub poster for more photos. Then in the dugout, Holub and some teammates laughed and joked and also took photos with a Fathead that had Holub's face.
"The team, the coaches, everybody, the environment -- this is the best experience I have ever had being on these teams and at this school," Holub said. "I would never trade it for anything. My girls are my rock. I love them. I couldn't do it without the team. If I was going to go out with anybody, I would want it to be this team."