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It's difficult to imagine the Kent State softball team winning a championship of any kind without Holly Speers' stick in the lineup.
Fortunately for the Golden Flashes, they likely won't have to.
After missing 16 games while resting a nagging back injury, the junior slugger returned to the lineup this weekend and promptly smacked three home runs in three games. Her two solo shots on Saturday lifted the Flashes (17-23, 7-8 Mid-American Conference) past Miami (23-17, 9-6) 3-2 at the Diamond at Dix, and helped avenge a pair of tough losses to the RedHawks on Friday.
"Two (homers) today, one yesterday. That's a pretty good start," said KSU coach Eric Oakley. "The first one she hit yesterday was clearly a month's worth of sitting down. She hit that thing a mile. It's nice to have her back, for her offense and her defense as well."
Speers, who typically hits in the middle of the order, was at the top of the lineup on Saturday and led off the game for the Flashes with a home run to centerfield. Senior pitcher Ronnie Ladines added a solo homer in the second to give Kent State a 2-0 edge.
Miami scored an unearned run in the third off Ladines, but Speers countered by making huge plays with both her bat and glove in the sixth frame.
She was first involved in a game-saving defensive play. A one-out double by Johniann Wahl put Miami runners on second and third. Rylee Whispel then hit a hard ground ball to the right of Speers, who fielded it and threw her out at first. Wahl took off for third on the play while the runner on third base didn't move.
Kent State senior first baseman Paige McCrary ran across the diamond and made a quick toss to freshman Kellie Abeska at the second-base bag to record the third out before the runner on third reached home, keeping the Flashes up 2-1.
"It started with Holly's great play, to the point where Miami was kind of caught off guard," said Oakley. "Then it got tricky. Paige made a great instinctive play, kept checking the runner at third then just made that quick toss and Kellie made a quick tag. A game-changing play, no question about it."
Speers then took advantage of a strong breeze blowing out in center to belt her second round-tripper of the contest, pushing the margin to 3-1.
"I'm just seeing the ball well, took good cuts," said Speers. "It's great being back. I missed being on the field, being with my teammates. Our trainers did a great job of helping me get back."
Speers now has nine homers and 23 RBI in just 24 games this season. She's second on the team in both categories, trailing teammate and conference leader Maddy Grimm (14 homers, 44 RBI).
"She's an incredible talent," said Oakley. "I know Maddy gets a lot of the press, and it's well-deserved because she's a phenomenal player, but Holly's every bit as good of a softball player. It's wonderful to have the two of them together on this team and have both of them in the lineup. They're dangerous every time they're up to bat."
The Flashes were tied or led late in both games on Friday before faltering down the stretch, and the RedHawks did not go down easy once again. Lauren Anderson's seventh-inning solo blast to left brought Miami within 3-2, but Ladines fanned the final two batters to nail down the win.
"My immediate thought (after the 7th-inning homer) was, this is not going to happen again. We're better than this. We're ahead, we got this win," said Ladines. "I have the majority of the power (as the pitcher), so I was going to do whatever I could to get the last two outs."
Ladines (9-13) went the distance for the 18th time in 23 starts this season, allowing two runs (1 earned) on four hits with two walks and six strikeouts. The senior ace bounced back from a rare rough outing on Friday, when Miami tagged her for eight earned runs in 5 2/3 innings just two days after she tossed an 11-inning shutout at MAC East Division leader Ohio.
"We've had a lot of struggles this year, but we've bounced back literally every time we've been knocked down," said Ladines. "That can really take a toll, but I think we've had a great mentality of just knowing that we're good and that we can come back from anything."
The Flashes are currently ninth in the overall MAC standings, but just two games out of first place in the East Division with nine conference contests remaining. With Speers now back in the fold, they believe they're ready to get rolling now that the stretch run has arrived.
"This was a huge win. We needed this right now," said Speers. "I think it's going to shift the momentum of our team after the two losses (Friday). This one's going to be a huge momentum shift."
Kent State will play three games at Akron (19-22, 8-7) next weekend.