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Softball: Ohio State heads to Knoxville to begin NCAA tournament

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OSU senior Lena Springer (26) pitches during the game against Rutgers on April 1 at Buckeye Field. Credit: Emily Hetterscheidt | For The Lantern

It’s hard to believe Minnesota shut out Ohio State’s softball team 6-0 in the Big Ten Championship on Saturday when you hear the Buckeye players speak.

“I just think we’re kind of firing on all cylinders right now,” senior pitcher Shelby Hursh said. “The pitching’s doing well. Hitting is back around. Our defense, we were amazing last weekend.”

“I just think, when all that comes together, we’re so good and I don’t think you can ignore that.”

The team was happy with the result — OSU’s first appearance in the Big Ten tournament championship game in 10 years — but believes there is more to be accomplished.

“We have a lot of unfinished business to handle and we’re not going to just bow down,” sophomore infielder Lilli Piper said.

The Buckeyes (36-16) will look to back up their words when they head south to take on South Carolina-Upstate (41-11)  in Tennessee at 4:30 p.m. on Friday.

OSU earned an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament and was placed into the Knoxville Regional as the No. 2 seed with USC-Upstate, Longwood and No. 8 Tennessee. Last year, OSU also competed in the Knoxville Regional, but was knocked out after falling to Arizona (2-0) and Tennessee (10-1).

If the Buckeyes beat USC-Upstate, they will face the winner of Friday’s Tennessee-Longwood matchup. But if they lose, they will face the loser of Tennessee-Longwood and would have to win their next four games to avoid elimination.

“Just knowing that coming out as strong as possible so people then know that we mean business and we’re there. Coming out and playing strong the very first game, knowing that no one’s going to stop us,” Piper said.

Unlike OSU, who throwsfour pitchers, only two players have thrown more than 20 innings in the circle for the Spartans all season — seniors Lexi Shubert and Holly McKinnon.

McKinnon is 24-7 with a 1.36 ERA, having pitched 196 innings with 207 strikeouts. Shubert has a 19-4 record with a 1.43 ERA in 156.1 innings. Despite the duo’s success, Piper is certain her team will be able to get on base and accumulate runs.

“I think just being relaxed, knowing that our offense is going to be better than their pitching and that’s what, in our head, is important to us,” Piper said. “That there’s no one that they’re going to put that we’re not going to go right through them.

Piper, a unanimous first-team All-Big Ten selection, leads the team in batting average (.424), home runs (17), RBIs (51), runs (46), slugging percentage (.785) and on-base percentage (.420). Seven OSU starters maintain a batting average higher than .270.

Upstate batters don’t struggle to reach base either as eight players have batting averages higher than .285. The Spartans have proven dangerous once they get on base as five of their players have stolen at least 10 bases. Sophomore shortstop Ashley Gilstrap leads the team with a .343 average and has converted 32 steals on 34 attempts.

OSU coach Kelly Kovach Schoenly said Hursh will likely be the starting pitcher against Upstate on Friday. She feels confident in Hursh and her other pitchers because they’re facing fresh competition.

“I think it’s an advantage to our pitchers that these hitters haven’t seen them again and again,” she said. “I mean, Michigan State saw us for the fourth time in like three weeks (in the Big Ten tournament). I think it will help our pitchers have a better mindset because they know that these hitters haven’t seen them.”

Hursh holds a 15-5 record with a 2.33 ERA. She leads the team with 129 innings pitched, 115 strikeouts and five shutouts.

Kovach Schoenly signs extension

On Wednesday, OSU announced Kovach Schoenly would remain the Buckeyes’ coach through the 2020 season as her contract was extended four years.

The softball coach came to OSU after spending six seasons at the helm of Miami (Ohio). Since she took over in Columbus in 2013, the Buckeyes hold a 163-105-1 record and the team has made the NCAA tournament twice. OSU’s 35 wins this season are the team’s most since 2010.

“The program is in a good place as athletes have excelled in the classroom, on the field with back to back NCAA bids and in the community with increased fan support,” said T.J. Shelton, associate athletics director for sports administration in a press release. “This is a clear sign that it’s heading in an upward trajectory.”

Kovach Schoenly’s 163 wins at OSU are the most by any softball coach in their first five years at the school in program history.

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