As tough as Saturday was for Kansas University’s softball players and coaches, the Jayhawks left Columbia, Missouri, proud of their season and their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2006 and excited for what the future holds.
For the team’s seniors — starting left fielder Taylor Hatfield, substitute outfielder and pitcher Alex Jones, backup catcher Nikki Bruce and starting second baseman Ashley Newman — regional losses to Missouri and Nebraska meant the end of their journeys and a lot of postgame tears.
“It’s truly upsetting to lose, but everyone’s gonna play their last game eventually,” Jones said late Saturday night, still hoarse from screaming in the dugout for three games in two days. “I’m going on my fifth year now. People kept telling me whenever I got hurt my junior year (torn ACL) that it happened for a reason. And I think that the reason, 100 percent, was so that I could get to experience this. It was amazing. I’m not disappointed at all.”
Though the Jayhawks (34-23) finished with winning records each of the previous three seasons, too, Newman said 2014 felt far more special with KU’s postseason selection and Friday’s victory over Nebraska at the double-elimination regional.
“This season, by far, obviously was the best season that we’ve had, I know, since me and (Jones) have been here,” Newman said. “And this really was an amazing experience coming this far. We just wanted to know what it felt like to get this far.”
Fifth-year Kansas coach Megan Smith, who steered the program to the NCAAs for the first time since her arrival, recalled the team’s trip to Missouri in her first season, when the Tigers still played in the Big 12, and making a very different postgame speech after Mizzou completed a sweep. That day was rough, and even though the trip back this weekend disappointed the hopeful group, the coach left this time feeling positive about how KU played.
“We’ve come leaps and bounds since then,” Smith said, “and it’s because of those girls who put on that jersey and work hard every day.”
Seven members of KU’s order — freshman right fielder Lily Behrmann, sophomore shortstop Chaley Brickey, junior first baseman Maddie Stein, junior third baseman Chanin Naudin, freshman catcher Harli Ridling, freshman designated player Taylor Dodson and freshman center fielder Taylor McElhaney — will return next season. Same for the Jayhawks’ two starting pitchers, sophomore Kelsey Kessler and junior Alicia Pille.
“Since my freshman year, it’s been our goal to get to regionals,” Pille said, while trying not to cry immediately following the season-ending loss to Nebraska. “We made it here, and I’m proud of every one of us. And I’m happy for our seniors that we got to come here and accomplish what we did. And I can’t wait to build on this for next year.”
Smith thinks her program is primed to make the next step.
“We definitely have young talent, and we have good talent coming in next year,” the coach said. “I think that just getting to this stage, they now know what they’re working for. Before they were working for this dream, and they had no idea what it meant, what it felt like. Now they know, and they’re gonna want to get back, and they’re gonna want to do even better.”