Freshman Alex Martens, whose two-run first-inning home run propelled Kentucky to victory in Sunday’s NCAA softball regional finals, has a history of making an immediate and striking impact.
As Coach Rachel Lawson told it after a 4-2 victory over Illinois, Martens startled her parents by accepting UK’s scholarship offer while on a campus visit.
“Her parents just looked at her,” Lawson said. “She didn’t talk to them. She said, ‘OK, I’m coming.’ And they looked like, ‘Wait! Wait!’
“I go, ‘OK, Alex, why don’t you drive home?’ I wanted to ease the tension, so they didn’t have a bad drive home. ‘Why don’t you guys talk about it? Then you can give me a call a little bit later.’”
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Nothing changed on the drive to Martens’ home in McHenry, Ill. And Lawson came away feeling good about Martens’ eager embrace of Kentucky’s upwardly mobile softball program.
“I knew she was ready for the big time,” Lawson said.
Martens’ three runs batted in — she later hit a sacrifice fly — helped advance Kentucky to its fifth super regional in the last seven years.
Kentucky (39-17), the NCAA Tournament’s 14th seed, will play at No. 3-seeded Oregon in the super regional this week.
UK’s three first-inning runs matched the number of runs Illinois’ All-Big Ten ace, Breanna Wonderly, had given up in 20 previous innings in the regional. She came into the game with a 1.05 ERA on the weekend. Opponents had batted .162 against her. That included limiting UK to three singles on Saturday.
The Cats took a 1-0 lead when Illinois center fielder Kiana Sherlund could not hold on to Brooklin Hinz’s potentially inning-ending drive to the right-center fence.
Sherlund had to make a long run and arrived at the fence at the same time as the ball. She appeared to make the catch, but the ball popped out of her glove.
When asked the degree of difficulty associated with such a catch, Illinois Coach Tyra Perry said, “I can say this because I was an outfielder. She should have caught it. If the ball touches your glove — it’s that old rule — then you should make the catch.”
Abbey Cheek, who had kept the inning alive with a two-out single, scored on what was ruled as the first triple of Hinz’s career.
Martens followed with a two-run homer that cleared the fence in right-center.
Martens’ sacrifice fly in the third inning made it 4-0 and gave her five RBI during the regional. Her batting average on the weekend was .714.
When asked if she expected to make such a splashy debut in her first NCAA Tournament, Martens said, “Well, I mean, you never kind of anticipate it, but you hope for a good success.”
Though down four runs and its best pitcher well on the way to 399 pitches for the weekend, Illinois’ belief never wavered, Perry said.
“This team, we never get down on ourselves,” the Illinois coach said. “We were jacked in the dugout. We knew we were going to score.”
Illinois (39-20) scored in the sixth to reduce Kentucky’s lead to 4-1. Tensions increased when the Illini’s seventh inning began with a ball going through UK shortstop Katie Reed’s legs and rolling all the way to the fence.
A subsequent infield hit enabled Illinois to twice have the tying run at bat. UK ace Meagan Prince, who got the final four outs in relief, induced both hitters to ground out to end the game.
“For us, this is awesome,” Lawson said. “And it’s a great feeling. But it’s just a step to where we want to go.”
Of course, where Kentucky wants to go is the College World Series. UK has reached that plateau only once: in 2014.
Lawson suggested UK has the tools and the talent to return to the World Series.
“When we first started going to supers, I really didn’t have a lot of options on the mound,” the UK coach said. “We thought we’d have to trick people. Now, you know, we’re OK (to) kind of going out there and playing our game.”
NCAA super regionals
Kentucky at Oregon
What: Best-of three series