KEARNEY — University of Nebraska at Kearney softball returned its top four hitters and seven of its nine starters from last year’s team this spring. Coach Holly Carnes expected the veterans to provide a bulk of the offensive production.
While some players have duplicated last year’s results, an unforeseen player has been the driving force behind the Lopers’ offense that sits in the middle of the MIAA in runs scored this season.
Freshman outfielder Carlee Liesch has been a dynamic hitter atop the Lopers’ lineup this spring. She’s hit for average and power while displaying her athleticism in all facets of the game.
Liesch’s batting average leads the MIAA and ranks first among freshman in Division II.
“I didn’t expect to be doing as well as I am,” she said. “It’s kind of crazy, especially thinking back to the first game.”
The Lincoln native is hitting .475 with 12 doubles, three triples, seven home runs and 18 RBIs in 141 at-bats. In 39 games, she also has stolen 10 bases on 11 attempts.
Before the season, Carnes believed Liesch would play in some capacity this spring. She thought her athleticism would play a valuable role for the Lopers but expected some “growing pains,” especially at the plate.
Carnes has been “pleasantly surprised” with Liesch’s offensive production. The fact that the left-handed hitter is a slapper also adds to her versatility at the plate, Carnes said.
“She’s a tough out and one that a lot of teams dread to come up to be quiet honest with you,” Carnes said. “She does a really nice job of setting the tone for us. She could easily be a No. 3 or 4 hitter for us, but she does a really nice job of setting the tone in the game for us.”
Liesch started in left field and batted leadoff in her first career game against St. Cloud State on Feb. 1. Her performance was unlike any other game this season.
She desperately wanted to record a base hit in her first career at-bat. Instead, she struck out. Her other two at-bats also ended the same way.
She has struck out 10 times this season with three of those coming in the first game. She was nervous and put pressure on herself to make a notable first impression, she recalls.
After the season opener, Liesch settled in and produced. She’s remained consistent throughout the season and has developed into one of the nation’s top hitters.
Liesch has tallied at least one hit in all but four of the games she’s received an at-bat in this season. She’s riding a 15-game hitting streak and on pace for one of the best offensive season’s in program history.
With the regular season winding down, Liesch likely will break the program’s batting average record of .460. She also ranks in the top 10 in hits, runs and doubles for a season.
She has 67 hits and could surpass the program’s hit record (83) in a season, depending on far the Lopers advance in the conference tournament.
The Lopers wrap up conference play with a doubleheader at Fort Hays State on Saturday before finishing the regular season with a nonconference doubleheader against the Tigers at 2 p.m. Sunday at Dryden Park.
They likely will qualify for the eight-team conference tournament, sitting seventh in the standings entering the final weekend.
“I’ve never coached a kid that can be so deceptive to the defense,” Carnes said. “One minute she can hit the ball with power into the gap or over the fence and then the next minute she can drop a bunt. She has the defense guessing every time. She’s such a hard out and so mature for her young age.”