When Kansas University third-year junior Liz Kocon made a healthy return to the field this past fall, it was something of a revelation for her teammate, Maggie Hull.
As Hull tells it, Kocon — who was one of the KU softball team’s best hitters as a sophomore in 2009, but suffered a season-ending injury only five games into the 2010 season — seemed to hit at least one home run per day in fall ball.
With Kocon out of the lineup, the young Jayhawks struggled to a 21-35 (2-16 Big 12) finish last year, but there was plenty of promise at Arrocha Ballpark in the form of a stellar freshman class.
Twins Maggie and Rosie Hull, Mariah Montgomery and Alex Jones started all but a handful of games as freshmen and emerged as the top four hitters in the KU lineup.
“It was a horrible thing to lose Liz last year,” second-year coach Megan Smith said at media day on Wednesday. “But when you really look at it, for us, we look at it as a positive.
“We have her for two more years with the freshmen that did so well last year and the great group of freshmen that we have this year.”
Or as Maggie Hull remembered thinking while she watched Kocon smash home runs in the fall: “Wow, I didn’t realize how much we missed her. She’s the missing piece we need in our lineup.”
With a healthy Kocon, and plenty of standout returners and incoming talent, the Jayhawks are confident as they prepare to head to Florida for today’s season opener, where they’ll take part in the Jacksonville University Tournament.
The Jayhawks will play five games against four opponents this weekend, starting with an 8:30 a.m. matchup today with No. 25 North Carolina.
“I’m excited,” Kocon said. “I’m definitely ready to feel the grass beneath my cleats again.”
Smith called Kocon’s technique in the outfield “the best” on the team (high praise, considering the Hull twins and Jones also play out there), and cited the impression her work ethic and leadership have on her teammates — no doubt evidenced by her being voted team captain along with Jones and Montgomery.
“She’s the one, when I’m striking out during practice, to say, ‘Be positive,’” Maggie Hull said. “She’s that voice in my ear.”
Gone are graduated infield mainstays Amanda Jobe and Sara Ramirez, but stepping in to help lead are seniors Brittany Hile and Allie Clark.
“Really, we’re all leaders and all pushing each other,” Maggie Hull said.
Especially with Kocon’s bat back in the middle of the lineup, Smith feels strongly about her offense and was similarly optimistic about how her pitchers will improve from the circle, despite graduating Sarah Vertelka.
Clark (also one of KU’s better power hitters) was the Jayhawks’ top arm last year and led the team with eight wins, 72 strikeouts, and 145 innings pitched despite making only eight appearances — and none in Big 12 play — in 2009.
Jones can hit, too, but her numbers from the circle, where she went 7-10 with a 3.78 ERA as a freshman, are ones Smith only sees improving. Smith also expects to rely heavily upon freshman Kristen Martinez and junior transfer Ashley Spencer.
“That first weekend is going to be really critical for us in terms of seeing what they can do in game situations,” Smith said.
That, and a sunny reprieve from all of the snow and ice isn’t a bad way to spend a weekend.
“At this point, we’re done with practicing inside,” Smith said. “We’re ready to get out and compete.”