RedHawks hope to turn tables on Wildcats
By MIKE SMITH
The Miami RedHawks enter this year's NCAA Softball Tournament as an experienced team that has appeared in two straight NCAA tourneys. During that time, MU faced two of the three opponent program's in this year's Evanston Regional. Northwestern, a 12-seed, hosts the group. Kentucky, Eastern Illinois and Miami round out the regional.
Two years ago, Notre Dame nipped Miami 3-2 before Northwestern claimed a 7-1 victory the next day.
Last year, Kentucky cruised by MU 15-1 in the RedHawks 2022 NCAA opener. Miami fought back to shut out St. Francis 4-0 the following day and then exited after a 5-4 loss to Virginia Tech.
Especially with pitching ace Brianna Pratt handling . . .
. . . the bulk of innings, early wins would be helpful. That means the RedHawks need a better day against the Wildcats than last year. A victory there could set them up against the other Wildcats -- No. 12 Northwestern -- the following day. The hosts, who prevailed as Big Ten champs this year, are favored over Eastern Illinois.
Here's a brief look at MU's first opponent.
KENTUCKY WILDCATS (30-20-1, 10-14 SEC)
-- The Wildcats finished ninth among Southeastern Conference Teams in 2023.
-- Kentucky went 4-7 over its last 11 games. The 'Cats were 1-3 against No. 11 Arkansas, run-ruled Eastern Kentucky, 0-3 against Mississipi State and 2-4 against No. 16 Florida. Three of the Wildcat vs Gator encounters were one-run decisions. Kentucky's most recent outing was a 6-2 SEC Tournament loss to No. 8 Florida last Thursday. Both UK runs came on Meeko Harrison's fourth inning homer, a blast that briefly put Kentucky on top 2-1. Florida responded with a home run in the bottom half, three runs in the fifth and one more in the sixth.
-- Two Kentucky players earned All-SEC honors: shortstop Erin Coffel and catcher Kayla Kowalik. The latter was also a member of the SEC All-Defensive Team.
-- Kowalik (.450) and Coffel (.427) led Kentucky hitters. Vanessa Nesby (.379) and and Margaret Robias (.315) both averaged over .300.
-- As a team, the Wilcats hit .298, while opponents were at .261.
-- Kentucky hit 38 home runs on the season, compared to 60 by opponents.
-- The Wilcats were successful on 61-of-71 steal attempts. Opponents were safe on 28-of-32 tries.
-- Three pitchers appeared in at least 29 games. Stephanie Schoonover registered a team-best 110.2 innings, winning 12 and losing two. She had a 1.90 ERA and limited oppoents to a .176 batting average.
Alexia Lacatena went 11-7 while logging 90.1 innings. She had a 3.49 ERA and opponents batted .273 against her.
Kennedy Sullivan (4-5) logged 54.1 innings with a 6.57 ERA. Opponents hit at a .308 clip.
-- Schoonover went 4.0 innings, allowing three runs (2 earned), striking out two and walking three in the tourney loss to Florida Lacatena pitched 2.0 innings, allowing three runs and one walk.
-- Kentucky lost to No. 17 Northwestern 9-3 back on Feb. 25
-- The Wildcats faced No. 1 Oklahoma twice in early March, losing the first game 18-0 and dropping the second 7-1. Miami dropped a 13-1 decision to Oklahoma April 15. Ten of the runs came in the last three innings, with seven in the sixth inning.
NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS (38-11)
-- Speaking of Oklahoma, the Northwestern Wildcats gave the Sooners all they could handle before falling 2-1 back on March 17 in Oklahoma City. Since that time, NU has won 28 of 31 outings.
-- The Wildcats finished a conference-best 20-3 in Big Ten play.
-- Northwestern added a Big Ten Tournament title to its 2023 accomplishments after rallying in the seventh inning for a walk-off 2-1 win over Indiana in the championship game. The 'Cats trailed 1-0 entering the final frame. Jordyn Rudd led off the seventh with a base hit and was pinch ran for by Lauren Sciborski. Grace Nieto laid down a sacrifice bunt to move Sciborski into scoring position. Sciborski moved to third on a Hannah Cady single and came around to score on a wild pitch. After two walks loaded the bases, Maeye Nelson lined s shot to right center to bring home the winning run.
-- LHP Danielle Williams did not allow an earned run in the championship game. After being named First Team All-Big Ten for the fourth time in her career earlier this week, Williams was named Most Outstanding Player of the Big Ten Tournament for allowing zero earned runs over 14.0 total innings.
-- Joining Williams on the Big Ten First Team was Nikki Cochran. Second team members were 3B Hannah Cady, C Jordan Rudd and OF Skyler Shellmyer.
-- Northwestern is seeded 12th in the NCAA tournament and is one of four Big Ten teams in the event.
-- Kate Drohan was named Big Ten Softball Coach of the Year.
EASTERN ILLINOIS (34-19)
-- The Panthers picked a great time to get hot. After losing four of their last five regular season games, EIU won three straight to capture the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament title. The Panthers defeated Southern Illinois University Edwardsville 2-0 in the finals.
Amber Cieplinski drove in Rachel Kaufman with two outs in the third inning for EIU's first run. Jaylen Prichard's sacrifice fly drove in Marama Makea for an insurance run in the fourth.
Tournament MVP Olivia Price (16-4) pitched three complete games to lead the Panthers, who prevailed in three straight games despite scoring a total of five runs over the tourney. Those three victories came against the tournament's No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 seeds. Southeast Misssouri State, the No. 1 seed, was eliminated earlier in the competition.
-- Joining Price on the All-Tournament team were Amber Cieplinski, Aniya Hold and Kendall Grover.
-- Price and LF Kendall Grover represented EIU on the All-Ohio Valley Softball First Team. IF Milkowski, OF Prichard and Util/DP Kaufman were Second Team members. Gover and Aryn Henke were part of the All-Newcomer team.
-- Price led the league with a 1.70 ERA. She finished with a 16-4 record, tosing 128 innings with 83 strikeouts and 22 walks. Kaufman logged 105 innings, comiling a 9-6 record with a 2.20 ERA. She registered 56 strikeouts and walked 15.
Editor-Publisher Mike Smith
Mike grew up in Mid-American Conference football and basketball territory and returned there after military service. He has been covering MAC football and men's basketball for much of the last several decades.