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First-years power UNC softball to strong showing in Carolina Classic

The UNC softball team celebrates first-year outfielder Sanaa Thompson’s (19) first home run of her career during the game against Lipscomb at Anderson Softball Stadium on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. UNC won 12-4.

One word to describe the UNC softball team this season is “new.”

With a new coaching staff, five transfers and eight first-years, there is a lot of "new" on the field this year. 

The first-years made their presence known this weekend in the Carolina Classic at Anderson Softball Stadium, helping UNC drop only one game in the six contests. Left fielder Sanaa Thompson and infielder Kate Bubela both hit their first collegiate home runs this weekend, and pitcher Nikki Harris ended the weekend with 18 strikeouts across two games. 

UNC first-year infielder Kate Bubela (59) prepares to bat during the softball game against Lipscomb at Anderson Softball Stadium on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. UNC won 12-4.

UNC head coach Megan Smith Lyon said one of Thompson’s most defining characteristics is her selflessness. Thompson — who hit two home runs this weekend and produced the run to lead to Sunday night’s 8-0 win over Mount St. Mary's — is hitting 0.576 on the season. 

“I feel like we're seeing the ball lately, and I just hope that trend continues as we go into ACC play and see really good pitchers," Thompson said. "And that just makes you feel good.”

After her moonshot homer against Lipscomb, Thompson experienced the team’s home run celebration for the first time. The whole team huddled up and launched the batter into the air after Thompson hit home plate.

“You just kind of have to launch and trust your teammates and hope that they catch you,” Thompson said with a smile. “And usually they do.”

Thompson hit another home run the next day to cement Saturday’s 7-1 victory over Mount St. Mary’s. 

The left fielder credits some of her success at the plate to the support of her teammates in the dugout. Whenever she’s at the plate, the team erupts into a rendition of the popular sports tune “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” and replaces the original lyrics with her first name. 

“Every time I hear it just makes me feel like I'm gonna get a hit," Thompson said. 

Like Thompson, Bubela said she's been working this season to produce “QABs” — an affectionate term used among the team meaning quality at-bats. Bubela took this to heart, as she plated the final hit in Saturday’s win against George Washington. 

Smith Lyon describes Bubela as a sponge. When she makes mistakes, she wants to know what she can do better. She wants to make those adjustments.

UNC first-year infielder Kate Bubela (59) runs to second base during the softball game against Lipscomb at Anderson Softball Stadium on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. UNC won 12-4.

“You see her really progressing,” Smith Lyon said. 

On the defensive side of the ball, Harris thrived through the weekend on the pitcher’s mound. In her second start of the season Saturday, Harris served Mount St. Mary’s 13 strikeouts — the most for a UNC pitcher since 2019. 

In Smith Lyon’s words, Harris is a confident pitcher. She attacks her batters. She lets things roll off her back and keeps up a good demeanor. 

“[If] something doesn’t go her way, she just goes right back at it and refocuses,” Smith Lyon said. “It’s good to see a freshman be able to do that.”

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While Harris dished out strikes this weekend, it wasn’t enough to push UNC forward in Sunday afternoon’s game against Lipscomb. North Carolina ended up losing 1-0 thanks to its sour hitting and quiet offense. Putting this challenge aside, North Carolina capped the weekend off with an 8-0 win against Mount St. Mary’s. 

Looking to see the blemish as an opportunity for growth, the Tar Heels will use what they learned this weekend to propel them into the rest of the season. With young and powerful hitters such as Thompson and Bubela coupled with the strong arm of Harris, Smith Lyon is looking forward to the rest of the season.

“The future's so bright," Smith Lyon said.


@dthsports |