KEARNEY – University of Nebraska at Kearney softball had high hopes for this season.
The Lopers believed they had the necessary players and experience to qualify for the MIAA Tournament for the first time in the program’s history after falling just short last year.
Entering Saturday’s conference finale at Fort Hays State, the Lopers needed to win both games of the doubleheader to ensure themselves the eighth and final spot in the tournament. Instead, the Tigers swept UNK to end the Lopers’ season.
“We just need to take care of business earlier so we don’t have to feel that kind of pressure,” coach Holly Carnes said. “I just feel like our team felt the pressure.”
The Lopers concluded the regular season with a non-conference doubleheader against Fort Hays at Dryden Park on Sunday afternoon. They swept the doubleheader 2-1 and 12-4 (five innings) over the Tigers to reach the 20-win mark for the season.
The doubleheader allowed the Lopers (20-24, 12-14 MIAA) to recognize third baseman Cheyenne Hamilton and catcher/outfielder Alexis Howe, who played their final games for the Lopers on Sunday. Although Howe is a junior, she has opted to not play next season and focus her attention on her nursing degree.
Hamilton and Howe have been two of the top offensive producers for the Lopers’ the last two seasons.
After the Lopers pulled out a victory in the first game, they dominated the second behind strong performances by Hamilton and Howe.
Hamilton hit a walk-off double down the left field line to score Howe. The left-handed swinging Hamilton also hit an opposite field two-run home run. She finished the game 3 for 4 with a double, home run and three RBIs.
Howe also capped her career off strong. She went 4 for 4 with four RBIs and one stolen base.
The Lopers showed growth and improvement this season to post their best record since joining the conference in 2013.
“They played really lose and decided they were going to come out and have a good time,” Carnes said. “It just shows that we are a type of team that has to play loose to play well.”
Next season, the Lopers will be in search of their first winning season since 2012, which was their last year in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.
Qualifying for the conference tournament will be the goal once again, especially with only two departures from this year’s team.
Freshman outfielder Carlee Liesch will be the Lopers’ top returning hitter, after posting an .467 batting average with 12 doubles, three triples, seven home runs, 18 RBIs and 10 stolen bases in 41 games. She led the MIAA and finished first among freshman in Division II in batting average.
The Lopers also return their four pitchers, including starting right-hander Erin Hallman. She posted a 3.69 ERA with 50 strikeouts and 51 walks allowed in 96 2/3 innings as the Lopers’ ace.
“We have two big holes we have to fill, but we have kids that are maturing,” Carnes said. “They will step up and do some things. We are excited about our future.”