Friday, March 26, 2010

The Perfect Pitch: The A-Sun’s Success in the Circle

MACON, Ga. – Last year, the A-Sun baseball pitchers gained national acclaim when Lipscomb’s Rex Brothers, Kennesaw State’s Chad Jenkins and Kyle Heckathorn all heard their names called early in the June MLB Draft and FGCU’s Chris Sale lit up the Cape Cod Summer League.

This year, two female hurlers in Lipscomb’s Whitney Kiihnl and USC Upstate’s Morgan Childers climbed to the top of the A-Sun leaderboards and claimed national recognition in the first release of the NCAA Division I softball stats report as the conference season gets underway. Kiihnl and Childers, who both own three no-hitters this season, rank first and second in the NCAA in fewest hits allowed per seven innings. Kiihnl holds foes to only 1.89 hits per seven innings with Childers close behind at 2.15.

Kiihnl tops Lipscomb in the circle with a 14-2 record, 0.87 ERA and 155 strikeouts on the year.

“As far as Kiihnl goes, you are looking at an extremely good pitcher,” USC Upstate head coach Chris Hawkins said. “Lipscomb is full of seasoned veterans and they are playing extremely good competition, a lot better competition than we have faced and they are holding their own. I would say they are a lot more ready to play these games than we are, but we will see what happens. Hopefully we won’t concentrate on whether we are winning or losing, but on having fun and challenging each other.”

Childers tops the nation with 13.5 strikeouts per game and ranks second with a 0.42 ERA in addition to her second-place showing in hits allowed per game and 15-2 record on the season.

“You could say USC Upstate and the first name that comes out of your mouth is Morgan Childers,” Hawkins said. “That is good and bad for me. That is good in the fact that you are able to recruit somebody who is that good and can single-handedly carry a team through any times that they have.”

Childers also ranks ninth in strikeouts, 16th in wins and 19th in shutouts.

“Morgan is self motivated and stat motivated,” Hawkins said. “She did not get something this preseason and that has really put a fire under her. I have no worries and no doubts that if she needs an ‘A’ game she will throw an ‘A+’ game. We will just have to see what happens.”

Hawkins believes the reason behind the Spartans’ early success lies with their defense and the strong effort Childers puts forward.

“We’ve only made nine errors so far and we play well behind her and whoever else is back there. I’d like for us to hit better. I’d like for our games to get blown open where we can relax a little bit through them. We have gotten extremely good at winning a one to nothing or a two to one game. We’ve even won a game this past week where we didn’t get a hit.”

This weekend also marks the opening of conference play for many teams in the conference. Hawkins views USC Upstate’s games in Nashville as a test to see how his squad compares in the rankings.

“Morgan is legit,” he said. “But a lot of these other statistical categories might fall against some of the competition we have faced or it might be because we are good. I’ll find out this weekend if those kids are hitting the way they are hitting or doing some of the things they are doing because we were playing good teams or bad teams, or if that is just what is in them. I’ll find out.”

Heading into the weekend, Lipscomb and USC Upstate ensure each squad is prepared for the competition as conference play begins a whole different ballgame for players in the A-Sun. Many will face pitchers and hitters they have faced many times before, unlike non-conference play.

“People always talk about these big teams out west, but, the A-Sun has some really tough teams,” Childers said. “We may be little, but a lot of our teams in the A-Sun battle hard. Freshman year I came in and nobody knew us and we kind of shocked some people.”

“I think it is great for Lipscomb and I’m glad that we are getting noticed as a Christian school,” Kiihnl said. “We’re a small school and no one really knows about us. I think it says a lot about us as a conference like when Stetson beat Alabama. I used to play with Amanda Lindsey back in the day. I think it is awesome that a lot of our teams are doing so well against other teams. Just do your best and let God do the rest.”

The league pitchers stand as one of the secrets to why the A-Sun is so successful in softball. Along with Kiihnl and Childers, many other A-Sun pitchers like UNF’s Devyn Findley, Stetson’s Lindsey and Mercer’s Jenni Holtz make any A-Sun team forceful on any given day against any opponent.

“Every team has at least one very, very capable pitcher. Some teams have two,” Lipscomb head coach Kristin Ryman said. “We have all seen each other enough now that everybody saw Whitney last year and they already have an idea of what to expect from her. The same goes with Morgan and the same with multiple pitchers in our conference that are doing well right now. This is going to be the challenge for all of them going into this portion of the season. Now they are going to be facing some hitters who know them like the back of their hand. They have an idea of what to expect a little bit more than nonconference teams.”

Last season, the Lady Bisons swept the doubleheader with the Spartans in the A-Sun Series of the Week by marks of 9-1 and 3-0 in Spartanburg, S.C. For Lipscomb, Kiihnl pitched a complete game in game one, as the then-freshman scattered three hits while striking out eight. Saturday in Nashville, Tenn., Childers and USC Upstate seek redemption.

“I think we always have that expectation of going out and getting a sweep, but we know it is never going to be easy,” Ryman said. “We don’t ever want to go out and say, ‘Well we swept them last year! We feel like we could do the same this year.’ We know that they have new players and some players that maybe did not perform against us last year that we know are still good players. That could step up this year for them. We go into every game with the expectation that we are going to sweep and that is what we go after. We also know that Morgan Childers is a great pitcher and she is on her game right now. Yes we beat her last year, but we still know she is still a good pitcher. She is still going to present some big challenges for our hitters and we have to be ready to adjust early and try to put some things together and score some runs against her. We know they are a good team. We feel confident in our game, but we are not going into it overlooking anybody right now.”

Even as conference play starts to heat up, Childers always remembers the secret to doing well in the game is to have fun.

“The older I get, the less frustrating it is if something bad happens. I just smile and try to enjoy it because I pretty much only have two years left.”

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The Atlantic Sun Conference is an 11-member league committed to Building Winners for Life. The A-Sun stands for achievement with integrity in both the academic and athletic arenas, with a focus on the balance between the two for our student-athletes. Headquartered in Macon, Ga., the A-Sun boasts six of the top eight media markets in the Southeast. The A-Sun includes a blend of the most prestigious and dynamic private and public institutions in the region: Belmont University, Campbell University, East Tennessee State University, Florida Gulf Coast University, Jacksonville University, Kennesaw State University, Lipscomb University, Mercer University, University of North Florida, University of South Carolina Upstate and Stetson University.

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