Kelsey Aikey (Provided)

The WKU softball program will have its ace back in the pitching rotation next season, as senior pitcher Kelsey Aikey announced on Friday that she intends to cash in the eligibility waiver granted to her by the NCAA on Monday and return to the Hill for a final season with her WKU teammates in 2021.

Aikey revealed her decision to return for an additional year with the Hilltoppers on the third installment of WKU’s “Beyond the Hill” podcast series, which launched on March 27 as a platform for “WKU coaches, players, alumni and others in the Hilltopper family to explore their lives, their commitment to their craft, and currently, how they’re navigating these uncertain times,” according to a release.

“Happy is completely an understatement,” Aikey said. “It’s crazy that I get to have a fifth year and be able to start all of my goals over and push myself even harder.”

The Cedar Falls, Iowa, native worked 79 innings during her abbreviated 2020 campaign, tossing 116 strikeouts while maintaining a 1.86 ERA. Aikey (10-3) made 18 appearances, 13 of which were starts, and seven complete games with three saves. She allowed 61 hits, 21 earned runs, and surrendered just 33 walks and four home runs, holding opposing batters to a .204 average.

The WKU softball team, which finished the year at 20-5 with a perfect 3-0 mark in Conference USA play, was preparing for its first C-USA road series against preseason favorite North Texas at Lovelace Stadium in Denton, Texas, when all spring sport competition was suspended until further notice on March 12.

“We usually got in a huddle after practice,” Aikey said. “When [WKU softball head coach Amy Tudor] told us that the season was suspended, it was one of the toughest moments I have ever been in. Being told as a senior that things are being taken away from you was hard, and the whole team broke down.”

Just one week before all spring sport competition and championships were canceled by the C-USA Board of Directors on March 16, Aikey earned her second C-USA Pitcher of the Week nod on March 9 after helping the Hilltoppers reach the 20-win milestone in just 24 games — the quickest the feat has been achieved in program history. She was also named C-USA Co-Pitcher of the Week on Feb. 24.

“I told the team this season that I want us to work harder,” Aikey said. “I am hard on myself and I set goals for each game and season.”

As of March 9, Aikey owned 15 career saves, ranking her first in the WKU softball record book and second in the C-USA listings. With 115 strikeouts on that date, Aikey was ranked No. 15 in all of NCAA softball in that particular category for the 2020 season.

In addition to becoming the WKU softball program’s first-ever Senior CLASS Award candidate on Feb. 18, Aikey also ranks No. 5 in program history for strikeouts with 462 in her storied career.

“Coming into the next season, I want to push myself even harder because I know my capabilities,” Aikey said regarding her aspirations for the 2021 campaign. “It’s important to remind yourself to be humble and go harder each season. We want to take everyone we know we can beat and look at it that way.”

Aikey said WKU softball head coach Amy Tudor has told her program to take a break from softball right now, but the players have individually kept up with one another on a daily basis. 

What Aikey misses the most about being at WKU is being around her teammates and getting to hone her craft with them several times per week at the WKU Softball Complex, she said.

“It’s not because I have to be there — it’s because I get to be there,” Aikey said.

The transition to online schooling is another obstacle that COVID-19 has forced Aikey to overcome, but she said the transition hasn’t been too hard for her because WKU softball players were already allowed up to two online classes because of their extensive travel schedule.

Lately, Aikey has been following social distancing rules and spending quality time at home with her family during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Control what you can control and stay stress-free,” Aikey said about her current mentality. “God’s going to control everything as it needs to be. I’m going to remind my team that not only are we playing for ourselves, but that we’re playing for the winter sports who didn’t get the extra year.”

Reporter Nick Kieser can be reached at nick.kieser036@topper.wku.edu. Follow Nick on Twitter at @KieserNick.

Nick Kieser is the sports editor of the College Heights Herald. He previously worked as the baseball beat writer and covered general sport assignments. He’s also worked in athletics at Volunteer State Community College.