It seems that the preseason ranking of the North Carolina softball team, especially in the conference, left a bitter taste in head coach Donna Papa’s mouth. But since then, the Tar Heels’ strong start hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“I was not really thrilled about being ranked fourth in the ACC,” Papa said. “I have a little chip on my shoulder about that one, but I’m excited people are starting to notice."
After a successful 3-2 run at an early-season tournament in Tallahassee, Florida last weekend, the Tar Heels were able to garner enough votes to crack the top 25 in the national rankings. UNC defeated then-No. 2 Alabama and took then-No. 9 Florida State to extra innings, giving the team confidence heading into their home opener.
And despite a slow start, the No. 25 North Carolina softball team was able to win soundly against unranked Campbell in an 11-1 mercy-rule victory on Wednesday. The win over the Camels was a statement victory for a team that Papa says she feels is under-appreciated.
"Now that we’re ranked in the top 25," she said, "We become a target.”
After a scoreless first inning and one run scored by Campbell in the top of the second, UNC found itself down 1-0.
A four-run scoring burst in the bottom of the second by the Tar Heels proved to be the turning point in the game. North Carolina was able to capitalize on a series of walks strung together by the Campbell pitcher that loaded the bases.
Another walk, a sacrifice fly to right field by sophomore first baseman Kiersten Licea, and a shot to shallow center by first-year Destiny Middleton gave the Tar Heels a 4-1 lead and control of the game heading into the third.
“We just needed to get something started, put something in play,” redshirt junior Kristina Burkhardt said. “We always say we need to just pass the bat. Once one person gets it going we can follow.”
The team’s ability to string together hits from top to bottom of the batting order was crucial in sparking the second inning turnaround.
“I think we did a really good job of passing the bat,” Papa said. “We were producing up at the top of the lineup which is really important. Getting people on the table, setting them up and scoring— I think we did a really good job of that.”
After the Tar Heels took the lead, their dominance both offensively and defensively began to shine through. The combination of pitching efforts from sophomore Hannah George and a short appearance from senior Hannah Nommensen shut down the Camels, not allowing a single hit for the rest of the game.
The hitting for UNC was what really set them apart in this game. With 11 runs on 12 hits and multiple players batting over .500, the Tar Heels had a clear advantage.
Sophomore Lexi Godwin and junior Megan Dray both had two hits on three at-bats and played a significant role in North Carolina's offensive production. But no player for the Tar Heels played as big a role as Burkhardt, who hit 3-4 and notched UNC’s first, and more importantly last, hits of the game.
Burkhardt lined up at the plate with two players on at second and third base in the bottom of the fifth. With a smooth swing and a crack of the bat, she launched the ball to deep center for a walk-off, three-run homer — sending everyone home early for the night with a mercy-rule victory.
“I was seeing the ball really well all day,” Burkhardt said. “I wasn’t even trying to hit the home run. It was just, ‘See the ball, hit the ball.’”
The Tar Heels home-opener victory in what Papa called “exclamation point” fashion surely boosted the team’s confidence and caught the attention of rankings voters. UNC has high aspirations for the season, and this win was a stepping stone in the right direction.
“I don’t want to get too far ahead, but we definitely left some things undone last year,” Papa said. “We have a long road before we get to May, but these mid-week games are just as important as our weekend games.”
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