By Shehan Jeyarajah
After playing non-conference games, No. 14 Baylor softball looks to re-enter Big 12 conference play with a home weekend series against Kansas on today, Saturday and Sunday.
Baylor (33-12, 6-4) enters the series in the midst of a rough patch. Despite a win over UTSA on Wednesday, the No. 14 Bears have lost four of five against ranked opponents Louisiana and Oklahoma.
“I thought we played outstanding ball early in the season, but haven’t played as well lately, or at least not to the degree that we would like to,” softball coach Glenn Moore said. “We’re trying to get back the team we had early in the season. We’re still in good shape RPI-wise and I think we’re not necessarily playing bad ball. We just want to play better and we know we’re capable.”
Junior right fielder Kaitlyn Thumann and freshman second baseman Ari Hawkins have been rock solid at the top of the lineup. Thumann is hitting .411 with a .575 slugging percentage and Hawkins is hitting .376 in the second spot.
“The top of our lineup really sets the tone for us,” junior shortstop Jordan Strickland said. “Kaitlyn and Ari just set the table and everyone else just feeds off of that. I feel like if we just keep flowing from that and building the momentum off of that, it just trickles down.”
As a lineup, the Bears hit .302 with a. 468 slugging percentage and outscore their opponents by a margin of 5.2 runs to 2.1 on the season.
Baylor’s pitching has been outstanding this season. Senior left-hander Whitney Canion has posted a team-best ERA of 1.53 with 200 strikeouts in 24 starts. Sophomore starter Heather Stearns has started 17 games and has a record of 11-3 with a 1.62 ERA. The Baylor rotation holds opponents to only a .195 batting average and .287 slugging percentage.
Kansas (29-16, 3-6) has a record 3-6 in conference, including being swept by both Texas Tech and Oklahoma in its last two series.
Sunday’s game against the Jayhawks will be Baylor softball’s senior night, where the team will honor Canion, senior catcher Clare Hosack, senior first baseman Holly Holl and senior reliever Liz Paul.
“We’re always blessed to have some kids who have impacted the lives of many that have come through this program, and these four are very special,” Moore said.
Baylor will play Kansas on today, Saturday and Sunday. First pitches will be at 6:30 p.m., 3 p.m. and 12 p.m. respectively. The Saturday game will be broadcast live on Fox Sports Southwest.
Canion leaves the team after six years in the program thanks to two redshirt injury seasons. In her four healthy seasons, she has been named First-Team All Region, First-Team All Big 12, First-Team Academic All-Big 12, Second-Team All American and USA National Team Member. She also leaves Baylor as the all-time win and strikeout leader.
Holl redshirted her freshman season, but came out and played a vital role for a Bears as they made a Women’s College World Series, where Holl was named to the All-Tournament Team. As a sophomore, she was also named First-Team All-Big 12.
Hosack has been a mainstay for the Bears since arriving on campus. She has been a full-time starter all four years she has been in Waco. She has made a big jump this season, hitting .308 with nine homers in 42 starts this season. Moore recently announced that Hosack will be staying on as an assistant coach for the Bears.
“It’s going to be a great experience,” Hosack said. “I want to go into coaching, so this is the best way I feel like I can start doing that.”
Paul has been a mainstay at relief pitcher and broke the Baylor record with her 56th relief appearance against No. 13 Oklahoma. She has been named First-Team Academic All-Big 12 four twice.
“The seniors are very important to me; they’ve just been a great class,” Strickland said. “They didn’t start out together but they’re ending together and this team has just been so much fun to be around specifically because of those seniors. I’m just truly going to miss all of them.”
Sophomore infielder Chaley Brickey has posted a strong season with a .394 batting average and ridiculous .709 slugging percentage with 10 homers and 10 doubles in 127 at-bats. The Jayhawks hit .300 as a team and hold opponents to .209.
Sophomore pitcher Kelsey Kessler leads a Kansas bullpen that posts a 2.15 ERA. Kessler herself is 17-10 with a 1.97 ERA and 217 strikeouts in her 27 starts.