All Hands on Deck as Jayhawks Make it 12 Straight
GAINESVILLE, Florida – Talk about thrown into the fire. Kansas freshman Bryn Houlton made her first and second appearances of the season, just hours apart, and retired the heart of Illinois State’s order with the bases loaded to preserve a 4-2 Kansas victory at Pressly Stadium Friday evening. The win moved the Jayhawks to 12-0 on the season, extending a new program-record for best start, and 2-0 at the Aquafina Invitational hosted by the University of Florida.
Kansas head coach Megan Smith declared Sophia Templin the pitching staff’s “secret weapon” in a win over New Mexico State last weekend, leaving “super-secret weapon” as the only fitting descriptor left for Houlton. Houlton, who pitched 2.2 innings of scoreless relief while closing a win over Liberty earlier in the day, made just her second career appearance after KU starter Alicia Pille was forced to leave the game with the bases loaded and the Redbirds’ top hitters coming to the plate.
Houlton got ISU clean-up hitter Regan Romshek to pop up to second base, then struck out Payton Billups to end the game. Billups hit a walk-off home run in the Redbirds’ morning win over Mercer and hit a two-run blast off Pille earlier in Saturday’s night cap.
“Bryn was great today,” Smith said of the Savanna, Okla., native. “She hasn’t pitched the last two weekends and was chomping at the bit. I kept telling her, we’re going to call your name, be ready. She was absolutely ready. She went out there, went right after their hitters. Her stuff was working well and I’m really proud of her. Being a freshman and being able to come in and do that, that’s a big deal. I’m really proud of her effort today.”
Pille earned her sixth win of the season and was both brilliant and lackluster at moments. During her best, she fanned seven of eight Illinois State batters, including five straight from the end of the first into the third. The senior ace also gave up eight hits, including a long ball to Billups in the fourth that drew Illinois State within a single run at 3-2.
Pille started the seventh for Kansas but couldn’t log her sixth complete game after a line drive off her hand forced the Jayhawks’ workhorse to leave with two outs left in the game. Thankfully, Houlton was there the close the door.
“It’s funny because she had a lot of strikeouts, but she wasn’t sharp,” Smith said of Pille. “We knew it in the dugout. It didn’t look like she had the same stuff, but she fought through it and did well up until the last inning when she got hit in the hand and couldn’t recover from it. She’s going to be the go to all year for us. We’re going to go to her in most of our situations and usually she’s going to fight and come through and do well for us like she did today. Even though she didn’t have her best stuff, she fought through and gutted it out.”
Kansas got half of its run production from Lily Behrmann and the other half from Jessie Roan. Behrmann was one of three Jayhawks with multiple hits and pushed across Briana Evans in the bottom of the first on an infield single to second base.
Fueled in part by the early run and Pille striking out the side in the top of the second, the Jayhawks used five straight hits to start the bottom of the second, including an RBI double from Roane to plate Shannon McGinley and Daniella Chavez.
Before the rout was on however, Illinois State starter McKensie Vissering found a way out of the inning and pitched three scoreless before a Behrmann single in the sixth gave Kansas some extra breathing room.
“Lily’s awesome,” Smith said of the Jayhawk right fielder and two-hole hitter. “She’s one of those players that you love to coach because she listens to everything you say, she really tries to make every adjustment that you tell her, and she bleeds crimson and blue. It’s just exciting to see her do so well. She’s taking great at-bats. We count on her up at the top of the order. If she’s not going to get a hit, she’s going to work a count and probably get on base. She’s just really solid for us offensively. She has a great attitude, great work ethic, is a great kid – just really happy with her performance overall.”
The win sets up a showdown with tournament host and current No. 1 Florida on Saturday. The Gators run-ruled Liberty late Friday night and will play Illinois State before meeting with the Jayhawks at approximately 1:15 p.m. (CT).
“What a great opportunity,” Smith said. “It’s so much fun to play our sport when you play anyone, but to get to play who’s considered the best in the country at this time, and who won the National Championship, at their field. It’s going to be an exciting atmosphere and is going to give us a taste of what Big 12 play is going to be like on the road with a big crowd and a lot of energy from fans. It’s going to be fun. We’re just going to go out and battle, and compete, and not make too much of it – it’s just a game.”
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