Looking back on a historic Tiger season
By CONOR NICHOLL
Last weekend, the four softball teams in the NCAA Division II Central Regional at Fort Hays State University's Tiger Stadium were required to fill out a form that listed the players and coaches. When each team lost twice, the players and coaches each received an individual award for reaching the tournament.
However, at the end of the form, each coach had a space where they could list who would receive the team award. One coach listed himself, another listed the seniors. Another coach listed the two star players. FHSU second-year coach Erin Kinberger wrote "Team."
On Sunday afternoon, the entire squad accepted the team honor after Fort Hays finished 47-12, including 2-2 in the NCAA tournament with two losses to eventual champion University of Central Oklahoma. It's easily the greatest season in school history and produced the first two NCAA tournament victories in school annals. Maddie Holub, the first player to be named both MIAA Pitcher and Player of the Year in the same season, was the Tigers' lone senior. On Monday, she also earned Daktronics Central Region Pitcher of the Year.
The rest of the team was strong, too. Every fielding position, save right field, had a starter who received at least one all-conference honor in her career. Sophomore center fielder Amanda Vaupel finished as a second team all-region selection. Every player except Holub will return. Holub wants to get into coaching and will stay on next year and help the Tigers.
"Maddie and our upperclassmen have done such a great job of guiding these younger players to understand what it takes to get here," Kinberger said. "Clearly, they can see for themselves what it's going to take to get here and beyond for next year. So, I am very excited. I am very optimistic. I am always optimistic. I think that I will take any one of those kids, any day, anywhere we go."
On Saturday, Minot State coach Bill Triplett believed the Tigers could win the national championship.
"I just told them that they have got a great team and to continue on and to win this tournament," he said. "They have got what it takes to win it all, not just this tournament or the next one. They are tough at every position, they have got good team speed, they bunt, they run, they throw, they have got pitching, it's a complete team."
Even the backups played key roles, including junior Katlyn Kern in the season-ending 7-1 loss to University of Central Oklahoma. Kern made one relief appearance all season, but relieved Holub with one out in the first inning. Kern worked three innings and allowed two runs, both, earned, on five hits and kept the game close.
"I am very proud of Katlyn Kern," Kinberger said. "I respect her heart. She just dedicates herself to us day in and day out. She busts her tail in the outfield, she busts her tail in the cage. My gut screamed her name after Maddie, because Maddie and Paxton both throw hard and they both throw very similar pitches, curveballs, screwballs, rise balls. I just felt like Katlyn would rattle that cage a little bit with a slower pace and some movement."
Freshman Paxton Duran worked the final 2.2 innings and allowed one unearned run. Duran, likely next season's ace, finished 15-7 with a 3.09 earned-run average in 30 appearances with 13 complete games and five shutouts. She recorded a 107/52 strikeout to walk rate in 149.2 innings.
"I am very excited for (Holub) handing the ball off to Paxton and watching Paxton throw as a pitcher," Kinberger said. "Along with Jordan Jones and Katlyn Kern and whoever else we decide to bring in as part of this staff."
Those numbers were pretty similar to Holub, who went 14-10 with a 3.56 ERA in 24 appearances with 20 complete games and one shutout as a freshman. She finished with a 173/68 strikeout to walk rate in 145.1 innings. Holub, who went 29-4 with a 1.03 ERA and hit .426 this spring, eventually set more than 20 school records and several conference records including perfect games and no-hitters in a season.
"What I am going to take a lot from is the mental side," Duran said of Holub. "She is very confident and composed all the time and that is one thing that I really need to work on. That's what I took a lot from is how she presents herself when something is going amazing, when she is throwing a perfect game or people are hitting her, she is the exact same person all the time."