For two wintry, wet, schedule-shifting days at the MIAA softball tournament, Fort Hays State senior ace Maddie Holub was seemingly unfazed by the pitcher-unfriendly climate.
Holub had pitched every inning of the second-seeded Tigers’ three games — each a shutout win; two of them no-hitters — in the double-elimination tournament at Overland Park’s Blue Valley Recreation Complex.
That sent Fort Hays into Sunday’s final day needing one win to claim its first MIAA tournament championship and assure a second-ever berth into the NCAA Division II Regional field.
For most of Sunday’s session, the conditions that had forced the postponement of Thursday’s games, changed start times, and pushed the tournament into Sunday, remained much the same: windy, cold, overcast, with muddy spots in the outfield, puddles on the warning track, and a patchwork of varied colored clay on the infield.
Holub, however, wasn’t quite the same dominating pitcher against fourth-seeded Emporia State. Still good, but not unhittable. So at the plate, she made sure she was better.
Holub, the MIAA pitcher and player of the year, drove in the go-ahead run during the Tigers’ five-run fifth-inning in a come-from-behind 7-4 victory.
“I was so glad to be able to do something for my team,” Holub said. “It felt good to finally rope one.”
Down 2-1 with one out in the fifth, the Tigers had seven consecutive players reach base against Emporia State starter Karley Schmelzer, who was pitching her third elimination game of the day.
Holub’s single gave Fort Hays a lead it would keep, after Courtney Dobson’s bases-loaded single to left tied the game. Danielle Brinkman followed with another RBI single before a double to the fence by Amanda Vaupel, a Blue Valley North grad, drove in two more and put the Tigers up 6-2.
“(Before the fifth) coach told us we already had nothing to lose,” said Vaupel, whose Tigers, 45-10, were ranked No. 1 in the Central Region heading into the tournament. “We already had a berth to regions so we needed to stop pressing and just play our game.”
Emporia State, 38-18, had forced the deciding game by beating Holub 1-0 earlier in the afternoon. In that one, Holub gave up the only run with two outs in the top of the seventh, ending her tournament shutout streak after 252/3 innings. The Hornets also had six hits off Holub, who had allowed just two in the tournament until then.
Between games, coach Erin Kinberger decided to start freshman Paxton Duran in the second game and send Holub to left field.
“She threw quite a few innings for us and no matter how big a bulldog she is, they start to wear on you,” Kinberger said. “It takes more than one kid to win a ballgame and that game shows that Fort Hays is strong throughout. We’re not afraid to use any one of our kids in any opportunity.”
Duran gave up five hits in four innings, including a first-inning two-run home run by Tricia Vogel that gave the Hornets the lead and seemed to foreshadow another Hornet upset behind their ace.
Schmelzer had already pitched two shutouts Sunday — Emporia also eliminated top-seeded Central Oklahoma 1-0 to advance to face Fort Hays — before the Tigers eventually got to her.
“I don’t think we took (the lead) for granted, but Karley pitched seven games in three days,” said Emporia State coach Julie LeMaire, who previously coached Fort Hays and recruited Holub. “That’s when you just have to hope things fall your way. And she did a great job and battled her tail off.”
With the win, Fort Hays is almost assured of playing host to half of the eight-team regional bracket when the field is announced Monday morning. Emporia State, which had won eight of the last nine conference tournament titles but was ranked ninth in the region before the weekend, hopes it did enough to earn a spot.
“We came out and battled the final week of the season, played tough teams and fared well against them,” said LeMaire, who is on the selection committee. “I think we’re on top of our game and playing very well where I do think we deserve to go.”