UK softball's top hitter Kara Dill battles finger injury in NCAA play

jtipton@herald-leader.comMay 24, 2013 

  • NCAA SOFTBALL SUPER REGIONALS

    Kentucky at Arizona State

    What: Best-of-3 series
    When: 10 p.m. Saturday
    Where: Tempe, Ariz.
    TV: ESPN2

When the pitch smashed into her left hand, Kara Dill knew immediately that her senior season would be interrupted for an extended period. At worse, the wayward pitch could cruelly snuff out an accomplished college career.

"I knew it was broken," Dill said earlier this week. "I knew something was wrong."

In terms of a softball game, it was merely a foul ball because Dill's hand had remained on the bat. But the implications went far beyond this one game.

Dill's first reaction was competitive. She walked over to Kentucky Coach Rachel Lawson and asked to stay in the game.

"I might not ever get this chance again," Dill remembered saying. "And she's like, 'We need you for the rest of the season.'

"I was like, 'OK, Coach.' I walked away."

A streak of consecutive starts ended at 157 games. But as Shakespeare noted, discretion can be the better part of valor. The long-term payoff to short-term prudence continues this weekend with the Kentucky softball team playing at Arizona State in the NCAA Super Regional. Dill, UK's leading hitter for a third straight season, figures to be in the lineup in the best-of-three series.

"This is the best time of the year," she said earlier this week.

That Dill overcame the injury in time to compete for a chance to advance to the College World Series does not surprise Jim Piazza, her coach at Keystone High School in LaGrange, Ohio, and a distant cousin of baseball star Mike Piazza.

"I've never had a player so determined to reach her goals," Piazza said. "And they're all coming true."

Piazza recalled how two hits in four at-bats moved Dill to seek extra batting practice after a game. If she did not smoothly field a ball, she'd wanted to stay after a game to take grounders.

"Everything she did, she had to be perfect at," Piazza said.

Dill comes from a family of achievers. Her mother, Karen, teaches English in a middle school. She helped set a priority on academics.

Dill graduated three semesters early in December, 2011. She recently graduated with a master's degree in exercise physiology.

Her family roots in athletics are deep. Her father, Clay, and his twin brother, Jay, were high school basketball stars in Ohio. Clay went to play at Baldwin-Wallace College.

Older brothers Kyle and Corey played baseball, basketball and golf in high school.

"Kara got a lot of help from being the youngest of three (siblings)," Clay Dill said. "Kara always wants to keep up. Kara always wants to achieve whether it's on the field or in the classroom. Kara is a competitor. ... She never felt she couldn't compete with anyone, and that has to do with playing against her brothers. They were very good for her in that respect."

When asked if the older brothers took it easy on their kid sister, Clay chuckled and said, "She didn't get any special treatment. How about that?"

Kara became the first high school softball player to be named all-Ohio in four seasons, Piazza said. "We call her the pioneer of softball. She's opened doors for a lot of other kids in Ohio."

Dill also has achieved off the field. Earlier this year, the Southeastern Conference named her to its 2013 Community Service Team. She volunteers with God's Pantry, the Salvation Army, YMCA and Southland Christian Church.

Dill acknowledged the pain, psychological as well as physical, inflicted on the fateful March 15 game at LSU. She recognized the danger the pitch presented a split second too late. As she turned to escape the batter's box, the ball shoved her left index finger back into her hand. The knuckle shattered. Think of the pain associated with a jammed finger times at least 10.

Dill, who led UK in batting average the previous two seasons, expected the worst when UK sent specialists to examine the injury while the series at LSU continued.

"I knew when I had to go see them during the (series) that it was more than just a break," she said. "(She thought:) This is probably a pretty big deal."

After surgery, Dill was sidelined for almost four weeks. Then she was restricted to pinch-running duties for three more weeks.

"It was really hard," she said of sitting out such a big chunk of her senior season. "I struggled for a little while with it. ... I think I decided early in the process that the pain of not finishing my senior year in a Kentucky uniform was more than the physical pain, which I could handle."

Lawson kept Dill involved. For instance, to help her keep her timing, she stood in the batter's box in practices and watched pitches cross the plate.

UK trainers devised a protective padding that covers Dill's index finger and wraps around the palm of her left hand. "This nice contraption," she called it.

Dill hit for the first time since the injury at Alabama on May 4. She singled. In the Southeastern Conference Tournament, she returned to the lineup as a designated hitter (or as softball parlance terms it, a designated player). She singled in one of her three at-bats. Normally the team's shortstop, Dill has not been able to play defensively since the injury.

Dill had three singles in 15 at-bats in the NCAA Lexington Regional. That makes her 5-for-19 in this post-injury phase of the season.

Though those numbers are modest, Lawson called Dill's return "a huge bonus."

But the UK coach noted that her team wrung something positive out of Dill's absence. It put the onus on younger players to lead and be productive.

"Losing Kara was not great," Lawson said. "But other people stepping up helped the team evolve."

Dill will play at Arizona State despite what she said was "quite a bit" of lingering pain. For her, softball has become a test of execution, willpower and pain control.

"I would lie if I said it doesn't hurt when I hit," she said. "As long as I hit the ball squarely — which doesn't always happen, but that's my goal right now — it's fine.

"I try not to think about it. I try not to swing at bad pitches because it would hurt. I try not to hit on the handle because that hurts. I have to be perfect about everything."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Email: jtipton@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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