Kent State softball set for MAC play after rugged non-league scheduled

By Allen Moff | Staff writer Published:

By Allen Moff | Staff writer

At first glance, 14-12 looks like nothing more or less than a decent start for the perennial Mid-American Conference title contender Kent State softball program.

But when you delve deeper into the meatgrinder non-conference schedule the Golden Flashes have tackled over the first seven weeks of the 2014 season, that record sparkles brighter and brighter.

Seven of those 12 setbacks came against teams ranked among the nation's top 20, including a 1-0 loss in nine innings to No. 5 Michigan. The Flashes also led No. 19 Georgia 2-0 in the sixth inning and were up 2-0 in the fifth against No. 6 Kentucky, but were unable to close out either game.

Meanwhile, three of those victories came over Big Ten foes Penn State, Wisconsin and Purdue. But the most impressive performance was the one-hitter junior ace Emma Johnson threw in a 3-0 victory over that sixth-ranked Wildcats squad, which was 12-0 at the time.

Kent State was ranked an impressive 45th in the College Softball RPI that was released earlier this week, some 25 spots ahead of the only other Mid-American Conference squad among the top 100: Ball State.

Needless to say, 14-12 has never looked so good to 18th-year KSU head coach Karen Linder.

"I'm really happy with where we're at right now," said Linder, whose Flashes will open MAC play this Friday against Miami (11-15) at the University of Akron's Lee Jackson Field. "Going into the season I didn't know for sure what to expect with the tough schedule that we had. We have some really good wins, and some of our losses are good losses if you can ever say that. I'm really pleased with how we've played and competed, considering the strength of the teams we've faced."

Johnson gives Kent State a shot to knock off any team in the country.

The junior right-hander earned MAC Pitcher of the Year honors while leading the Flashes to the East Division title last season, when she went 20-12 with a 1.70 ERA. Johnson has picked up right where she left off in 2014, compiling a 7-6 record with a 1.99 ERA while facing some of the toughest competition in the country.

Fellow hurlers Lauren McNeil (3-2, 2.29) and Ronnie Ladines (3-3, 2.70) have also thrown well thus far, which has taken some of the pitching burden off Johnson's shoulders.

"Lauren McNeil is having a really good senior year, and that's a key for us. And Ronnie Ladines as a freshman has had some really good outings as well," said Linder. "Lauren pitching with confidence and Ronnie (contributing) has helped keep Emma strong. When she does pitch she's been a lot stronger physically, because we're not overusing her."

While Linder knew pitching would be a team strength, her offense was a question mark heading into the season. But she's found an answer in freshman Maddy Grimm, whose collegiate career is off to an astounding start.

Grimm, a shortstop/third baseman from Stahlstown, Pa., is batting .354 with nine home runs and 32 RBI through 26 games. Her slugging percentage (.810) and on-base percentage (.441) are both off the charts, and Grimm is actually closing in on the school records for homers (13) and RBI (48) in a season even though conference play has not yet begun.

"We knew she was gonna be a great addition to our lineup, but .," said Linder. "Nothing fazes her. She's just very steady, very calm. What's exciting to me is she can have an ugly swing, and the next one it's out of the park -- any time, against any pitcher, she's capable of doing that. She's really good at focusing on the next pitch, no matter what happens."

Other Flashes off to solid starts at the plate include junior left fielder Kim Kirkpatrick (.300, 3 homers), sophomore first baseman Shelbi Tilton (.289), senior right fielder Jessacca Gironda (.261) and junior center fielder and Dani Ramos (.253).

The Flashes have clubbed 21 home runs and produced 57 extra-base hits through 26 games. Last year they had 12 home runs and 54 extra-base hits in 49 contests.

"Our offense was the unknown factor, and I'm happy with what we've shown we're capable of doing," said Linder. "(Grimm) has come through time and time again against good teams, and I think that's kind of rubbed off on the rest of the kids. Our power numbers are up throughout the entire team. I'm excited about that, and I'm excited that we have been hitting and putting runs on the board against good pitching."

The Flashes have struggled at times defensively, which has led to several big innings, and the offense has been held to two or less runs 12 times. So the one area of concern for Linder heading into the MAC season is consistency.

"We've gotta get a little more consistent in the three phases," she said. "We have to eliminate the one big inning from a defensive standpoint, and just get more consistent with our offense -- being able to score throughout an entire ballgame. Just trust ourselves, trust each other, and continue to battle."

The Flashes will play a doubleheader against the RedHawks today beginning at 1 p.m., followed by single games against Ball State (18-11) on Saturday (2 p.m.) and Sunday (1 p.m.). All games will be played at Akron's Lee Jackson Field.

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Email: amoff@recordpub.com

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