KU Softball Looks to Build on Strong 2011 Campaign

May 23, 2011


With one of the toughest schedules in recent memory, Kansas softball persevered through a hefty travel schedule and challenging conference season to wrap up its 2011 campaign with a 31-22 overall mark. Slightly less than 50 percent of Kansas softball’s contests were played against top 25 opponents as 12 of the Jayhawks’ foes went on to play in the NCAA Tournament, while KU was just shy of its own postseason bid, despite a top-50 RPI.

“We are pleased with the steps that we have made,” Kansas head coach Megan Smith said. “For two years straight, the program won 21 games, so we made some pretty big strides this year.”

Those sizeable strides included going undefeated in the team’s first 10 games, which was the best start to any season in program history. The team eventually racked up another double-digit win streak, 11 games, to help the Jayhawks win five of its six pre-conference tournaments as they compiled a 26-3 record heading into Big 12 Conference play. KU’s 30-win season also included two upsets over nationally ranked opponents, No. 25 Texas Tech and No. 25 North Carolina.

“We have a group of young girls and they have worked real hard,” said Smith of the team’s historic start. “The biggest difference from last year is that we had depth on the mound and pretty much everywhere else. I think that really helped us in our first stretch of games.”

The Crimson and Blue women even garnered some national attention after their hot start, as they were ranked No. 22 for the week of March 22, by the Ultimate College Softball Poll. It was the first time a KU softball team had been listed in the Top 25 since 2009 and Smith’s crew proved their ranking was no fluke as they continued to receive votes for six weeks in at least one major college softball poll.

“We did some great things statistically,” Smith said. “We cut our RPI in half in just one year, so we are pretty excited about that and we feel like this year was a good foundation for what we know we are going to do in the next few years.”

That foundation is aided by the fact that Smith guided her team to an 11.5 game improvement from the 2010 season, which is the 16th-best turnaround in NCAA history.

While the start to the 2011 season established some new bests for the Jayhawk softball program, the team stumbled during league play. The Big 12 Conference was once again one of the toughest in the nation with at least seven teams ranked in the top 25 all season, while the league averaged an RPI of 23.5, second to only the Pac-10 (19.9). Despite a 2-16 Big 12 record, including 1-15 versus top 25 teams, the end to KU’s regular-season saw more team records fall.

Sixty home runs in a season is now the standard for a KU softball squad, as the team belted as many long balls in 2011 to surpass the old club record of 54 set back in 2005.

Hitting over 60 percent of those record-breaking 60 homers for the Jayhawks was the trio of junior outfielder Liz Kocon, senior catcher Brittany Hile and sophomore infielder Mariah Montgomery. Kocon’s 14 dingers led the team and are tied for the second-highest total for a Jayhawk slugger in school history. Hile was not far behind Kocon’s pace with 13 and Montgomery was the third and final team member in double digit home runs with 10 as the two ranked fourth and eighth, respectively, in KU’s record books.

Also at the plate, Kansas was led by Maggie Hull, who set the pace for her team in three offensive categories. The sophomore outfielder had team high totals in batting average (.346), hits (56) and RBIs (49). Hull was only a dozen shy of setting a new team record in the RBI category for a single season but garnered national attention as she smacked three grand slams this season, which tied her for the most among any hitter in the nation. As a team, KU went deep with the bases loaded a total of seven times.

Hull was the lone Jayhawk honored by the conference earning All-Big 12 Second Team accolades and was also named to the NFCA All-Region Second Team along with Hile.

In the circle, sophomore righty Alex Jones came on strong towards the end of the season to set the pace for the Crimson and Blue with a team-best 2.55 ERA, while senior hurler Allie Clark led the team with 13 wins and 78 strikeouts. Freshman Kristin Martinez also had an impressive 2011 campaign winning 12 games and equaling Clark’s team-high 78 K’s.

While the core of Smith’s team will remain intact for the 2012 season, her club will say so long to two seniors who have played important roles in the Jayhawk softball program the past four years.

Pitcher Allie Clark leaves Lawrence with a 3.68 career ERA along with 30 career wins in the circle and 233 strikeouts. Her 107 career appearances at pitcher rank as the ninth-most by any hurler in Jayhawk history.

On the receiving end of many of Clark’s pitches during the past four seasons was fellow senior Brittany Hile, who leaves the program in elite company. Hile, who started every game over the last two seasons, became only the second KU softball player to be drafted by a professional team. The Olathe, Kan., native was selected by the Orlando Diamonds of the National Pro Fastpitch league earlier this spring with the 15th overall pick in the College Senior Draft.

“I am very excited. This is an unbelievable opportunity,” Hile said after being selected. “I couldn’t have gotten this far if it wasn’t for my teammates, the coaching staff and the support staff pushing me to get better and reach my fullest potential. This experience is going to be so much fun and I’m so thankful to be able to fulfill a lifelong dream.”

That dream would not be complete without the backstop’s impressive collegiate career in Lawrence, which included 23 career home runs, 133 hits, 93 RBI and a .980 fielding percentage. Hile’s 23 long balls tied for the fifth-most in a Jayhawk career, while her 93 runs batted in come in at No. 8 in the record books.

“We lose two strong players in Brittany Hile and Allie Clark,” said Coach Smith, who is sad to see her hard-working seniors go. “Brittany was unbelievable for us behind the plate. She was just a rock there and Allie really stepped up and did a good job in the circle for us as well.”

While Hile and Clark leave long lasting legacies, Smith is excited about the possibilities that 2012 has in store.

“We are adding six players who should come in and contribute next year,” she said. “We are going to be young and we like that. We like our young talent and the job they did for us, so we feel really good about it.”

Another thing the soon to be third-year head coach feels good about is what her team can take with them next season, from the one they just completed.

“We are very encouraged by what we did this year because we know what we accomplished is a building block to where we need to be in the next few years,” Smith thinks. “We showed resilience and fight this past year and I think we have some kids who are going to do some big things here and we are just going to continue to build until we get there.”