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Friday, May 16, 2014

KU softball gets second shot at Nebraska in NCAAs

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Although today will mark the NCAA Tournament debut for every player in a Kansas University softball uniform, the Jayhawks feel like they know what they’re getting into.

KU has a rare opportunity in front of it, opening the postseason against a Nebraska team it already faced this season.

The Huskers (40-15, No. 19 in the nation) won, 1-0, at Kansas on March 15. But the Big Ten co-champions, like the Jayhawks, only managed three hits. Nebraska’s lone run off of Kansas pitcher Kelsey Kessler came on a sacrifice fly in the second inning.

Senior second baseman Ashley Newman said KU (33-21) expects another battle in the rematch — 12:30 p.m. today at University Field in Columbia, Mo.

“We knew with just a few more innings against them,” Newman said, “we’d be able to pick up their pitching and the way that they play.”

Kansas coach Megan Smith said the Jayhawks are happy to see the Huskers again at an NCAA regional.

“It was a great game. Kelsey (seven innings, seven strikeouts) threw extremely well,” Smith said of the first meeting. “We didn’t hit as well as we wanted to against a really good pitcher (Tatum Edwards, 22-11, 1.96 ERA), but they’re a solid team.”

Kessler (19-14, 2.41 ERA), a sophomore out of Blue Springs, Mo., could start in KU’s first NCAA Tournament game since 2006. Or Smith could go with junior Alicia Pille (12-6, 2.45 ERA). The fifth-year Kansas coach wasn’t interested in revealing her choice beforehand.

“It’s a good thing when you take a team into the postseason and have more than one pitching option,” Smith said, “and I think we have two really good ones.”

Pille, from Royse City, Texas, said the two starters, though both right-handed, have different strengths. Kessler works the left side of the plate with her curve while Pille throws inside.

“I think we play best as a team when me and Kelsey are both on fire,” Pille said. “I think she pushes me to be better and I push her to be better.”

Like the pitchers, most of the Jayhawks are driven by competition. Sophomore shortstop Chaley Brickey, a .375 hitter with 38 RBIs, said the first game against Nebraska kept intensifying as KU hung around with the talented Huskers. Maddie Stein, Taylor Hatfield and Chanin Naudin were the only Kansas players to register a hit in that one. Brickey expects the entire lineup thoroughly fired up for the rematch.

“I think our team wants it a lot more than we did then,” she said. “This is a big deal for us, and we know how close we were then. We know what’s coming and they know what’s coming. It’s gonna depend on who’s more prepared.”

Border War revival?

Regional host and longtime KU rival Missouri (41-16) faces Bradley (27-30) at 3 p.m. The winner of that game faces the Kansas-Nebraska winner at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

Today’s losers play each other in an elimination game at 6 p.m. Saturday. Next, at 8:30 p.m., the winner of that game faces the loser of the first Saturday game.

Depending on outcomes, KU softball could be the school’s first program to face Missouri since it left the Big 12 for the SEC in 2012.

Pille, who pitched at Mizzou as a freshman, remembers KU’s last trip to Columbia, which ended in a Tigers sweep.

“I hope we get the opportunity to play them. I really do,” Pille said. “We’re gonna bring it. Hopefully everything goes our way.”

More honors

Sophomores Brickey and Kessler both earned recognition Thursday from the National Fastpitch Coaches Associatiion. The NFCA named Brickey to the All-Region First Team in the Midwest, while Kessler was named to the third team.

Watch the game

To watch today's NCAA regional opener between the Kansas University and Nebraska softball teams, click here.

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