By CONOR NICHOLL
Sometimes sophomore ace right-hander Paxton Duran is frustrated with the Fort Hays State University softball team. Duran believes the Tigers have "so much untapped potential."
"I am sitting there going, 'I know you are better than that, and I know you can get the job done, ' " Duran said.
However, Fort Hays has struggled with self-confidence. Coach Erin Kinberger again addressed the squad's mentality in a postgame dugout meeting following a home non-conference doubleheader split Tuesday with Metropolitan State College of Denver.
Fort Hays won the first game, 2-0, on a Duran one-hit shutout and a two-run walk-off homer by senior shortstop Kellsi Olsen. In Game 2, FHSU made several mental and physical mistakes early and lost 6-1 at Tiger Stadium.
"Confidence is a really tough thing for a coach to give a player," Kinberger said. "We try to find the words, but at the end of the day, confidence comes from within, and from looking in the mirror and having belief in yourself, and if you can't believe in yourself, then you can't believe anyone else, too."
Fort Hays, 47-12 a year ago, now stands at 19-12 despite returning everyone but All-American Maddie Holub from last spring. At times, FHSU has played very well, including a 5-1 season-opening start in an Arkansas tournament. Last Wednesday, FHSU dropped two road games to Arkansas Tech, a sub-.500 team. Afterward, Kinberger had a team meeting.
"We just weren't playing like ourselves," Olsen said. "She just told us that we just needed to go out there and have fun and play ball like we know how - like Tiger softball is played. I think we are finding it, but we still have more to go."
Then, Fort Hays went 3-1 in a key four-game MIAA road swing last weekend through Northeastern (Okla.) State University and University of Central Oklahoma. Duran pitched a no-hitter against NSU and worked a 4-1 win against defending national champion UCO that ended the Bronchos' 35-game home winning streak.
"We just need to have the confidence, because we can be as good as last year, we just haven't stepped up yet and actually done it," Olsen said. "We have had little spurts of it, like in Arkansas, but I just think that we need to get our confidence."
Duran has delivered a terrific last week. Metro State (13-7) ranked fourth in NCAA Division II in average (.369) and fourth in runs per game (8.3) entering Monday. Duran's only baserunner was a two-out single in the third inning.
"She has decided that we need a leader, and we need a leader to step up, and she has decided for herself that she wants to be that girl," Kinberger said. "She wants to be the one - and right now, she is."
Duran struggled staying healthy earlier this spring, a new obstacle for her. She hurt her left armpit in practice in what she labeled a "freak accident."
"We have games," Duran said. "Why is this happening? What is going on? This is ridiculous."
Duran is now healthy and improved to 11-5 with a 2.38 earned-run average. The NSU no-hitter was the first of her career, while Tuesday's performance marked the first time an opponent shut out Metro State this season.
In the last three starts, Duran is 3-0 with one run and four hits allowed in 21 innings. Olsen ended the game when she hit a 1-0 offering over the left field fence from Roadrunner starter Aubree Maul (4-3).
"Really aggressive, she attacked the zone, she threw strikes," Metro State coach Annie Van Wetzinga said of Duran. "Good pitcher strikes. She threw really well and kept us off balance that way. I would like to have seen us make more adjustments."
In Game 2, Tiger junior right-hander Kelsey Kimminau continued her struggles. She worked two innings and allowed five runs (three earned) on three hits and three walks. Kimminau has allowed at least four runs in four of her past six outings.
"She needs to work on her mental toughness," Kinberger said. "That is something that we are asking her to focus on. It's there. I have seen it. We have all seen it. It was early in the season."
Metro State scored four runs in the second inning. A strikeout, walk and error on a sacrifice bunt opened the inning. After a RBI single, Kimminau coaxed a ground ball and went 0-2 on shortstop Susie Oury, the leadoff hitter. Kimminau left a pitch up and Oury blasted a two-run double into left center.
"That's the mental understanding of the game," Kinberger said. "We shouldn't be throwing it anywhere near the plate."
Following a walk, Olsen and sophomore second baseman Courtney Dobson collided on a short popup. The ball fell and Oury scored. Cassidy Smith (7-2) scattered six hits in the win for Metro St.
"We were both calling it," Olsen said. "I should have backed off, but just one of us needs to call louder, so we can hear."
The weeklong homestand continues today with a noon doubleheader against Colorado Christian.
"What we are struggling with right now is having confidence in yourself," Duran said. "Once we change that, nobody is going to be able to stop us. It's going to be ridiculous."