Miami softball set to face Kentucky in first-round NCAA game

Kirin Kumar saw enough improvement in Virginia Tech softball during her two years as an assistant coach that she figured the program eventually would host an NCAA regional tournament.

The tournament comes to Blacksburg this weekend and so will Kumar – but with a different team.

The second-year Miami coach leads the RedHawks into a first-round game against Kentucky on Friday at 4:30 p.m.

“It’s going to be very interesting,” Kumar said Monday morning, two days after 39-15-1 Miami clinched the MAC Tournament championship with an 11-0, five-inning bludgeoning of Bowling Green. “What you think you’re going to feel and what you will feel are probably two very different things. I knew when I was coaching there that we’d be part of a regional. I just didn’t think I’d be in different colors.”

The RedHawks are scheduled to leave on Wednesday in time to practice on Thursday before facing Kentucky, which lost, 7-5, at Miami back on March 16.

The RedHawks pounded six home runs against Bowling Green on the way to clinching their first MAC Tournament championship since 2016, but that’s no surprise. The RedHawks set a MAC single-season record and rank third in the nation with 109 homers, led by sophomore third baseman Karli Spaid’s MAC-record 27. She also leads the conference with 68 runs batted in while just missing a triple crown, finishing second with a .420 batting average.

Kumar was and wasn’t surprised at Miami’s power surge.

“Last year, we set a goal of leading the nation in doubles – focusing on hitting line drives – and we led the nation with 116,” Kumar said. “We had that goal again this year, but this year, the doubles turned into home runs. You never anticipate something like this. Everybody knows we have very good pitching, and after last year, tremendous hitting is not much of a surprise. People stepped up. I think playing a tough schedule early in the season helped.”

Spaid and senior catcher Riley Coyne each hit two homers against the Falcons. Junior first baseman Holly Blaska and sophomore center fielder Kate Kobayashi each added one. Spaid, Coyne, Blaska and senior pitcher Brianna Pratt were named to the all-tournament team.

“Karli Spaid improved from 17 home runs last year to 27,” Kumar pointed out. “She went from trying to replicate what she did as a freshman to surpassing it.”

Pratt (18-4) was named the MAC Tournament MVP.

“Bree Pratt kind of stepped up,” Kumar said. “She beat North Carolina and Kentucky early in the season. I don’t think she’d ever beaten a Power Five team before. Then she went 12-0 in the conference – 10-0 during the regular season and two wins in the tournament. She stepped up in a role nobody kind of expected.”

The rapid development of freshman second baseman Chloe Parks also was a boost for Miami. Parks ranks second on the team in hitting with a .360 average and scored the winning run in the eighth inning of the RedHawks’ 2-1 win over Central Michigan on Saturday. Blaska drove in the tying run in the sixth inning and followed Parks’s double with an RBI single with Parks sliding wide into foul territory and brushing the plate with her left hand.

“Parks didn’t start early in the season, but she’s become a staple in the lineup,” Kumar said.

Spaid, Pratt (18-4), fifth-year senior pitcher Courtey Vierstra (17-9) and senior right fielder and Lakota West product Allie Cummins all were first-team all-conference picks. Cummins is hitting .324 and is second on the team with 15 home runs and 42 RBIs.

Virginia Tech is the region’s top seed and the overall tournament’s No. 3 seed. Kentucky is seeded second in the region with Miami third and St. Francis (Pa.) fourth.

Miami, which has won three straight MAC regular-season championships, is a combined 3-10 in its previous five NCAA Tournament appearances, but that won’t dull the luster of this season.

“They’re superexcited,” Kumar said of the RedHawks. “That is what you work for, but it’s a new season. What you did in the regular season, what you did in the conference tournament – none of that matters. We’re 0-0. We’re excited.

“Our goal is to make this the standard.”

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