Big RedHawk Machine powers Miami to NCAA softball tournament

OXFORD -- Comparing Miami’s 2021 softball team to the Cincinnati Reds 1970 National League-champion “Big Red Machine” is only borderline hyperbole.

Sparky Anderson made his major league managerial debut with the Reds in 1970. Miami’s Kirin Kumar is in her first season as a college head coach.

The 1970 Reds, a potent offensive force going into the season, bludgeoned NL pitching on their way to their first postseason appearance since 1961. The RedHawks have rewritten Miami’s record books on their way to their second consecutive Mid-American Conference championship and their first postseason appearance since 2016.

Kumar, a California native and Los Angeles Dodgers fan, admitted to not knowing much about the 1970 Reds, but she respects the comparison.

“That’s awesome,” she said Monday by phone. “If they went to the World Series, I’m alright with it. I’ll have to look them up.”

Miami (46-8, 36-2 MAC) is scheduled to meet 31-13 Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA Division I Lexington, Ky., Regional on Friday at 2:30 p.m. The other teams in the four-team, double-elimination regional are regional topseed and 14th overall seed Kentucky (39-13) and Northwestern (29-15)

The RedHawks go into their fifth tournament appearance as easily the best offensive team in school history and among the country’s most prolific. Paced by junior Allie Cummins, a Lakota West product, they rank among the nation’s top 10 in 10 team categories, including No. 1 with 101 doubles. No. 2 in scoring with an average of 7.68 runs per game and No. 3 with a .434 on-base percentage and .616 slugging percentage.

They already own MAC single-season records with 32 wins, a 20-game winning streak, 384 runs, 363 RBIs and 101 doubles.

Cummins currently ranks 15th in the nation with a .457 batting average and fifth with a .597 on-base percentage and a school-record 54 RBIs. Senior pitcher Courtney Viera (26-3), freshman infielder Karli Spaid, junior infielder Adriana Barlow and freshman outfielder Karlee Juarez also are among the nation’s top 25 in several individual categories. Cummins, Spaid and Juarez all have scored a program-record 51 runs, while Cummins and Spaid share the school record with 14 home runs. Spaid is one of 15 finalists for a National Freshman of the Year award.

As a team, the RedHawks are hitting .345 with 87 home runs and 400 runs batted in, vast improvements over their last full season in 2019, when they hit .276 with 44 homers and 207 RBIs while going 35-16 overall and 16-4 in the MAC. They also have set a school record with 82 stolen bases.

Kumar, who played at Georgia Tech and worked on staffs at Tulsa, North Carolina, Western Kentucky, Tennessee Tech and Virginia Tech before replacing Clarisa Crowell after Crowell landed the Penn State head coaching job, traces the dramatic offensive turnaround to the team’s willingness to accept new approaches to hitting.

“The question was could we hit,” she said. “When I got the job, I talked to other people in the conference or who had seen Miami play. Several coaches said Miami always has good pitching, but ‘They don’t worry us hitting.’ What we’re doing offensively is lightning in a bottle. The young ladies wanted to be good. They wanted to be better. New coaches can come in and say and do what they want, but they can only be as good as they want to be if they’re willing to do it, and they wanted to do it. They decided to give this first-year head coach a chance.”

Cummins, a three-time first-team all-state pick and four-time Greater Miami Conference first-team all-star and GMC Player of the Year in 2018, found she still had much to learn about hitting.

“Honestly, just knowledge of the game,” she said. “They came in and taught us new drills and helped us with better pitch selection and game sense. They had online things. We realized that awareness is one of the most important parts of hitting. They opened our eyes to what hitting actually is.”

That Cummins and the RedHawks are flourishing practically in her own backyard makes the experience even more enjoyable.

“Our friends and family are able to come together and support everybody,” she said. “Everybody tailgates. They jell together.”

Miami’s record-setting season also is helping rinse away the bitter taste of 2020, when COVID-19 protocols wiped out spring sports seasons.

“I just think there was extra motivation all offseason,” Cummins said. “We saw how successful we were against our own pitchers. We were excited to go out and show what we’d been working on.”

Three teams from Power Five conferences comprise the rest of the Lexington Regional field, but Kumar isn’t concerned. Miami, which is a combined 3-8 over its previous four NCAA Tournament appearances, opened the 2021 season by going 3-4 in seven games against four Power Five teams.

“It’s just like we started,” Kumar said.

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