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Kent State softball players and supporters have learned to expect the unexpected in 2017.
When the Golden Flashes (32-26) were sitting at 16-23 in mid-April, only the true believers expected them to ultimately play in the NCAA Tournament.
When the Flashes lost to Ohio last Friday in the Mid-American Conference Tournament, few envisioned them capturing the crown for the first time since 2008 by winning three straight games on Saturday -- the final two coming over those same Bobcats.
When NCAA regional bids were announced Sunday night, not even those 'in the know' saw Kent State getting shipped to Baylor of all places to open regional play on Friday.
"It's been one of those years where nothing has really gone according to plan," said Flashes coach Eric Oakley. "We had some guesses as to where we might go (for regionals), and one I'd never really guessed was Baylor. We've never played in Texas, and I've never been (to Baylor), so we get to travel to somewhere different. It's pretty cool."
Oakley knew little about the No. 15 Bears (43-13) as of Monday afternoon, but quickly learned they feature speed. Baylor has five players with 11 or more steals led by senior Lindsey Cargill (33), and stole 105 bases on the year. In contrast, the Flashes have 14 steals this spring.
"We know their team has a lot of speed, so that's something that we're going to prepare for," said KSU senior ace Ronnie Ladines.
Keeping those speedsters off the basepaths will be up to Ladines (19-14, 1.88 ERA), who has allowed just 37 hits and 12 walks in her last 12 appearances covering 76 innings. She's posted an ERA of 0.64 during that stretch.
Ladines threw 33 innings in four days at the MAC Tournament, including 12 last Saturday. She sent the Flashes to the NCAA Tournament by throwing a three-hit shutout and ripping a two-run homer against the Bobcats in the championship game.
"I doubt Ronnie will throw full-go between now and Friday, maybe just a little to get loose. Right now ice and rest is pretty much the order of the day," said Oakley. "But there's nothing we're worried about. She'll be ready to go."
While Kent State has not appeared in nine years, the squad certainly doesn't expect to be overwhelmed. The Flashes tackled a rigorous non-conference schedule this spring, playing eight games against top-25 opposition. Although they lost them all, five of the setbacks came be two runs or less.
"We played in Rhodes Stadium at Alabama, played four games at Michigan, played at a tournament at Kentucky, so the atmosphere (at Baylor) shouldn't faze us," said Oakley. "I'm sure the first thing Baylor did was look at our schedule and realize we've been competitive with some really good teams. They're not going to look past us."
Kent State has the weapons in place to compete in the postseason -- an ace in Ladines along with a solid lineup that features senior slugger Maddy Grimm (.340, 19 homers, 55 RBI), junior shortstop Holly Speers (.336, 14 homers and 35 RBI in 39 games), sophomore Bailey Brownfield (.333) and Ladines (.292, 11 homers, 39 RBI) -- who hit four round-trippers in the MAC Tournament.
"Our team has known it can compete (at the national level) for a long time, but we just haven't been able to follow through and win the (MAC) Tournament," said Ladines. "Now with Maddy, Holly, Bailey Brownfield and all of the big hitters in our lineup, it allows us to step out of the MAC and become part of the big world of softball, which is super exciting for everybody."
While the Flashes are thrilled to still be playing, they are not content to simply make a postseason appearance. Kent State's previous three NCAA Tournament qualifiers have all won at least one postseason game, led by a 1990 squad that advanced to the College World Series.
"When we got back to Kent (last Saturday) I pointed out to them that it's easy to have the MAC Tournament championship be the goal. But this is what we're here to do, to play in the postseason," said Oakley. "I didn't have to convince them. I could tell right away they were all on the same page. They know that it's going to be tough, but tough is what they've been the last few weeks. They understand the opportunity they have right now, and they're not going to waste it."
The Flashes will meet the Bears at 7:30 local time on Friday, following the matchup between Oregon State (28-25) and James Madison (50-6). The winners of those two games will then meet Saturday at 2 p.m., while the losers will play Saturday at 4:30.