A look back at WKU Softball’s triumphant 2021 season

WKU+outfielder%2C+Taylor+Davis+%286%29+celebrates+after+making+a+diving+catch+during+the+game+against+Kentucky+on+Wednesday%2C+March+24%2C+2021.

Credit: WKU Athletics

WKU outfielder, Taylor Davis (6) celebrates after making a diving catch during the game against Kentucky on Wednesday, March 24, 2021.

Jake Moore, Sports Editor

The Hilltoppers left the field in Arlington, Texas on March 10, 2020 after a close 5-4 loss to the UT Arlington Mavericks. Head coach Amy Tudor and company didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the last game they would play in 2020.

The team had compiled a 20-5 record up to that point and were about to enter conference play with a series against conference rival North Texas. The Hilltoppers were firing on all cylinders and winning a conference title for the first time since 2015 didn’t seem too far-fetched. But while the team practiced in Denton, Texas, Conference USA put out a one-sentence press release that immediately dashed the Hilltoppers’ title hopes.

“Effective immediately, all spring sport competition for Conference USA institutions is suspended until further notice.”

While the pandemic kept outlooks bleak throughout the summer, students were able to return to WKU’s campus in the fall, and with the proper COVID-19 safety precautions, so were sports. This meant that there was softball to be played in the spring. 

“We’re tired of scrimmaging with each other, we get so competitive,” catcher Kendall Smith shared during the team’s media day. “I’m excited to play someone else and take out all that competitive madness.”

2021 looked to be another strong year for Tudor’s group. The team retained almost every key contributor from the 2020 squad and the Hilltoppers were picked to win the C-USA East Division in the preseason coaches’ poll. Smith, redshirt junior Shelby Nunn and redshirt senior Kelsey Aikey had also been tabbed to the preseason all-conference team.

There were also records to be broken, as Aikey, who had accepted an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA, sat just 101 strikeouts away from breaking the all-time program record (562) held by WKU alum Emily Rosseau.

But while the Hilltoppers might have been picked to win the division, the road ahead would not be an easy one.

“One of the biggest expectations is to not get complacent and to continue to strive to get better every day,” Tudor shared. This would prove to be the correct mindset for her athletes.

NON-CONFERENCE

The team would have to wait an extra week to take the field as their opening weekend in Statesboro, Georgia was cancelled due to hazardous winter weather conditions. Cancellations would prove to be a recurring theme throughout the year.

Tudor and company finally returned to the dirt in the Chattanooga Challenge in Chattanooga, Tennessee on Feb. 19. Aikey twirled a complete-game, seven-strikeout gem against Kennesaw State to secure the team’s first victory in over a year and the Hilltoppers returned home to Bowling Green with a 4-1 record. 

The Hilltoppers notched a pair of shutouts against Indiana State and Bowling Green State in front of a home crowd that was thrilled to have softball back on the Hill, even if wet conditions ended the homestand early. The Hilltopper offense steamrolled the competition through the team’s first two weekends, putting up a jaw-dropping 58 runs over just seven games. 

A trip to Starkville, Mississippi for the Bulldog Invitational followed the team’s first home series, a weekend that featured a pair of matchups against then-no.18 Mississippi State. Before the Hilltoppers faced the Bulldogs, WKU’s Katie Gardner threw a one-hit, 11-strikeout complete game against Alcorn State, the best performance of her collegiate career.

Gardner, a redshirt freshman, was just one of many younger Hilltoppers who stepped up to contribute throughout the season.

WKU lost both matchups against the Bulldogs, but the experience of playing an SEC powerhouse would come in handy a little later during the year. Tudor and company then traveled to Louisville, Kentucky and picked up a pair of victories over Valparaiso before returning to Bowling Green sporting an 11-4 record.

The team was set to welcome then-no. 7 Kentucky to the WKU Softball Complex, but the matchup was pushed back by a week due to rain. To fill the gap in the schedule, fellow C-USA member UAB came to town for a three-game series.

The Hilltoppers outscored the Blazers 25-10 in a clean sweep. Though the series would not count towards C-USA records, the experience of playing the Blazers would prove invaluable.

“We know that UAB is a tough competitor, even though it doesn’t count as conference play,” WKU’s Paige Carter said after the sweep. “To get a glimpse of what [Conference USA play] is about… it was really good to see that.”

The UAB sweep wasn’t all positive, however. Starting second baseman Jordan Thomas was hit by a pitch in the first game of the weekend and would have to watch the rest of the season from the dugout sporting a pink cast on her left arm. Redshirt sophomore Jordan Ridge and freshman Kennedy Foote both stepped up to help patch the hole in the right side of the diamond.

A packed house, including WKU President Timothy Caboni, awaited the Hilltoppers at the Softball Complex on the evening of March 24. The Kentucky Wildcats were finally in town, and the matchup between the two programs would be a classic.

Paige Carter began the top of the first with her third lead-off home run of the year and the Hilltoppers clung to a 1-0 lead all the way until the top of the seventh inning. Aikey kept the Wildcats scoreless for six innings, but Kentucky’s Kayla Kowalik tripled and Tudor sent out Kennedy Sullivan to relieve her. Kentucky then tied the game after Erin Coffel popped up to score Kowalik from third. 

Carter almost made it home in the bottom of the seventh but was called out at the plate. The game then went to extra innings, the first time the Hilltoppers had played more than seven innings all year.

Shortstop TJ Webster got aboard in the bottom of the ninth and Carter walked to put a pair of runners on for Kennedy Sullivan. Sullivan singled, scoring Webster, and the home crowd exploded. The Hilltoppers surged out of the dugout to celebrate. 

“It’s unbelievable, but at the same time we expected to win,” Carter shared after the game.

“It’s like a breakthrough,” Tudor said. “We were able to capitalize in the very end. It’s seriously [like] a chess match. And Sullivan came up with that big hit and we were able to get the win.”

There was an undeniable air of excitement around the team after the upset. WKU even garnered votes in the NCAA Top 25 Coaches Poll. But all of that positive momentum quickly dissipated due to circumstances out of the Hilltoppers’ control. 

The Hilltoppers’ next game was against Lipscomb, but it couldn’t be played due to scheduling issues. The team then headed to Huntington, West Virginia to face Marshall in WKU’s first conference series of the year.

The team had to turn right back around, as it was discovered that there had been a positive COVID-19 test in the squad’s tier-1 testing group. There would be no softball played that weekend.

The Hilltoppers returned to the dirt to face Eastern Kentucky at home on April 7, but were shut out by the Colonels. The team then traveled to Gainesville, Florida for a weekend of play against the then-no. 5 Florida Gators as well as an exhibition match against Canada’s Olympic Softball Team, which featured a reunion between coach Tudor and WKU alum Larissa Franklin.

Franklin had played under Tudor at Indiana-Purdue University Fort Wayne from 2012-2013 and transferred to the Hill in 2015 to play a full season on Tudor’s second Hilltopper squad. The Hilltoppers failed to win a game during the trip, but Tudor expressed that she was glad to have been able to reconnect with her former player.

“Being able to play against Team Canada was an awesome opportunity for our program and we are grateful for that opportunity,” Tudor said. “It was great to see [Larissa] Franklin and for the team to see one of our former all-time greats.”

CONFERENCE PLAY

With the Gainesville trip in the rearview, it was finally time to begin conference play. The Hilltoppers headed to Murfreesboro, Tennessee for a four-game weekend series against Middle Tennessee University, only to drop three of those four contests.

The injury bug struck again during the series with the Blue Raiders, as third baseman Taylor Sanders would come out of the weekend finale with a shoulder injury. She would be out of the lineup for nearly a month.

The Hilltoppers got a bit of their mojo back with a non-conference win against Belmont on April 21 before returning to the Softball Complex to host the Charlotte 49ers. The team split the hard-fought series thanks in part to yet another Kennedy Sullivan walk-off in the series finale.

WKU needed the split, but another member of the roster fell victim to injury during the series. In the second game of the weekend, Aikey struck out the first batter she faced to start the fifth inning but was taken out of the game when she felt something was wrong with her shoulder. Her hopes to break the all-time strikeout record were dashed and the fireballer wouldn’t enter the circle again for two weeks. The remainder of the pitching staff would have to step up in her absence.

Nunn, Sullivan, and Gardner delivered. Over the course of WKU’s final nine games of the season, the trio surrendered just 14 runs. The Hilltoppers won eight of those games and shutout FAU three games in a row in the team’s last regular-season series on senior weekend. Sullivan and Gardner both threw separate complete-game shutouts to close the season and secure the no. 4 seed in the conference tournament. 

Aikey returned to the circle in the second game of the FAU series to throw what would be her last inning as a Hilltopper, finishing her career with 554 strikeouts, 9 shy of breaking the record. The Cedar Falls, Iowa native had nothing but positive things to say about the rest of the rotation that had pitched so well while she was out. 

“At the end of the season, you want to be peaking,” Aikey said. “All of our pitchers are, so that feels good.”

POST-SEASON

The Softball Complex would play host to the 2021 Conference USA Softball Championship, the first time since 2014 that a participating team hosted the tournament. WKU faced the UTSA Roadrunners on the first day of action, handing them a 3-2 defeat. Gardner put together four one-hit innings of relief to advance her team. 

“It’s really a great feeling knowing that [Kelsey] Aikey can’t pitch so I was thinking about doing that for her,” Gardner said about her relief performance. “Going into that inning I knew I had to somehow get us out of it, I just went pitch-by-pitch again and knew that my defense would have my back.”

The win set up a match with the no. 1 seed North Texas Mean Green, perhaps the most formidable team in the conference. Nunn started the game but lasted just 0.1 innings before being relieved by Sullivan. The Hilltoppers kept the game relatively close but fell 4-1 and headed to the consolation bracket. One more loss would end the season.

A meeting with Charlotte awaited the Hilltoppers on the third day of the tournament. Sullivan pitched 6.1 innings of two-run softball before Nunn picked up the save to preserve the team’s championship hopes in a 3-2 victory. The Hilltoppers would have to rematch the Mean Green in order to advance to the title game. 

The Mean Green took a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the fourth inning, but Kendall Smith assured fifth-year senior Paige Carter, or ‘shrimp’ as the dugout called her, that this wouldn’t be her last game as a Hilltopper.

“I said, ‘Shrimp, this is not your last game on this field. We’re making it to tomorrow, I don’t care what we gotta do,'” Smith shared after the game. And the catcher was right.

Jordan Ridge hit an RBI triple in the top of the sixth to tie the game and a sacrifice fly from Smith gave the Hilltoppers a 3-2 lead. Redshirt sophomore Princess Valencia hit a pinch-hit RBI single in the top of the seventh to tack on an insurance run, and Nunn retired the Mean Green in order to send her team to the title game. Nunn showed she had recovered from her rocky start against North Texas the day before, piecing together a complete game with just 74 pitches.

Nunn shared that her performance in the circle had been for her teammate and friend Kelsey Aikey.

“I actually texted her this morning and I was like, ‘this one’s for you, I wish you were able to go out there’,” Nunn said. “Back in the past we’ve always referred to each other as the Dynamic Duo since we’re so different from each other, this one today is for the Dynamic Duo.”

UAB awaited the Hilltoppers in the title game, the same team WKU had swept almost two months prior. The Hilltoppers entered the fourth inning with a 3-2 lead before a home run from Kendall Smith blew the game wide open. Carter, Sullivan, and Taylor Sanders, who had come back from injury just in time for the tournament, all added home runs of their own and the game ended as a 13-4 rout. The Hilltoppers were Conference USA champions for the first time since 2015. Nunn, Smith and Gardner, all Bowling Green natives, had won a championship on home turf.

“It means a lot, being able to win on home turf,” Nunn said. “Just to have a little bit of fun in Bowling Green. Who would’ve thought you could have fun in it,” the pitcher added with a laugh.

“We definitely had our setbacks, some losses we didn’t expect, some injuries,” Sullivan said after the win. “We knew it was going to be a dogfight the whole way through, we never lost sight of the goal.”

The season wasn’t over quite yet. The Hilltoppers found out the following day that they would be heading to Athens, Georgia to face Georgia, Duke, and UNCG Greensboro in the Athens Regional. 

The first team they ran into while in Athens were the host Georgia Bulldogs, a formidable opponent that run-ruled the Hilltoppers by a score of 11-3 in six innings. WKU was sent to the consolation bracket for the second time in two weeks, one loss away from elimination.

With their backs against the wall facing UNC Greensboro, the Hilltoppers delivered. WKU defeated the Spartans 8-4 in a true team victory where seven different members of the lineup contributed a hit. The team was set to face the Duke Blue Devils, 2021 ACC champs and the 13th overall seed in the entire NCAA tournament, for a spot in the regional title game.

Katie Gardner manned the circle fresh from a 2.1 inning relief appearance earlier in the day. What followed were seven scoreless innings from the freshman, sending the game into extras tied 0-0. The Hilltopper defense was nearly perfect, and Taylor Davis and Brylee Hage both flashed some leather in the outfield. 

Shelby Nunn took over to begin the eighth inning and kept the Blue Devils scoreless for four frames. The game entered a 12th inning after the Hilltopper offense failed to get anything going. Unfortunately, Duke broke through for four runs in the top of the inning, putting an end to WKU’s 2021 season. Tudor had nothing but praise for her team that fought all kinds of adversity to get to that point.

“We lost so many players to injury, we had so many different players step up,” Tudor said. “When we were down they respond[ed] the very next day. That’s something that you can only hope for as a coach and they did a good job of that throughout the entire season.”

The team will lose Carter and Aikey but it retains a roster that has the chance to repeat as champs next spring. Brylee Hage, TJ Webster, Katie Gardner and Taylor Sanders showed that the team’s younger athletes are full of talent and players like Kennedy Sullivan, Taylor Davis, Shelby Nunn and Kendall Smith can lead a potent Hilltopper squad to back-to-back titles.

Softball beat reporter Jake Moore can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Charles_JMoore.