Herd golfer, softball team vie in NCAA action this weekend
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Football season was agonizing and basketball season was simply painful, but Marshall does have NCAA tournament representation this weekend. In two sports, even.
Thundering Herd golfer Nathan Kerns tees off this morning in one of six NCAA regionals, contested at Ohio State's renowned Scarlet Course. On Friday, the MU softball team begins play in a four-team, double-elimination regional, taking on host Kentucky.
It's not a bad way for the Herd's athletic department to close out its eighth academic year in Conference USA.
Kerns becomes the second MU golfer to make the NCAA tournament in three years, and 12th all-time, a list that includes Harold Payne (1975, 1977), Sleepy Hollow Country Club general manager Jonathan Clark (1996) and current mini-tour player Christian Brand (2011). The Herd has qualified as a team five times, the last being 1993.
The 54-hole regional is the latest in a year of milestones for Kerns, a senior from nearby Ironton, Ohio. Last summer, he won the Ohio Amateur and the Mid-Ohio Golf Association Championship. In the college season, he was runner-up in the fall Marshall Invitational and finished third in the recent C-USA championships.
That was a climb from his 13th-place finish of a year ago. First-year coach Matt Grobe said Kerns has improved the most from the tee up to the green.
"He's always had a pretty good short game," Grobe said. "I think he started hitting the ball a little better this year. When you can chip and putt like Nathan Kerns can, when the ball striking comes into play he's a really tough player.
The national finals take place May 28-June 2 at the Capital City Club's Crabapple Course in Atlanta. The low five teams from each regional will advance.
For Kerns to keep his career alive, he must defeat all golfers from the teams that finished outside of the five best, as well as the other nine individual entrants. If he doesn't beat those odds, it will be time to consider his post-college options.
He is on track to receive his business degree this fall, after defending his titles in Ohio this summer. After that, who knows?
Back in 2011, Brand went to work at The Arnold Agency and the West Virginia Golf Association after his NCAA appearance. Then he won the West Virginia Amateur, played in the Greenbrier Classic and turned pro in the summer of 2012.
On the other hand, Bosten Miller went straight to medical school.
"Almost all kids in that realm, where they're playing good college golf, have [a pro career] in their mind," Grobe said. "I think he'll try to defend [his titles in Ohio], then he has to make a decision.
"You've got to be all in; you can't do it halfway."
MU softball coach Shonda Stanton liked her team's mindset in winning the C-USA tournament. She may have liked the mindset during the selection show a little better.
When the NCAA rolled out its pairings Sunday night, players looked at Kentucky, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech without fear.
"There was so much excitement in the room. Our players believe we can go in and win it," Stanton said. "You'd think they might think 'we're happy to be here,' but there's none of that. That's one less thing we have to prepare for."
MU (35-20) entered the league tournament in Tulsa, Okla., as the fourth seed with a 13-10 record. It exited as the second Herd team to win a conference championship, joining the 2005 volleyball squad.
The Herd and UK (38-18) play at 7:30 p.m. Friday. All games in the regional are streamed live on ESPN3.
Marshall has played Kentucky before, having lost a 4-3 heartbreaker April 9 in Lexington. The Wildcats scored three in the bottom of the seventh to overcome a Herd lead.
"Andi [Williamson] got hit in the back of the head, and everything went [bad] from there," said Stanton.
Williamson, a native of Harts, is the focal point in the pitcher's circle, going 32-16 with a 2.01 earned-run average. At times the defense has leaked behind her - she has given up 85 earned runs plus 42 unearned.
Alysia Hively, a senior from Clay County, has been a rock at first base, while Huntington product Ashley Gue leads the team in hitting at .344. Gue typically bats second behind fellow outfielder Kaelynn Green, a first-team all-conference selection and one of the Herd's three all-freshman picks.
Marshall had five all-tournament selections: MVP Williamson, Gue, infielders Bri Anna Hope and Jazmine Valle and catcher Katalin Lucas. Those players will need to play even better for the Herd to beat Kentucky.
"They beat 'Bama twice, and some other signature wins," Stanton said of the Wildcats. "They've got a freshman who's a 20-plus game winner [Kelsey Nunley], and that's who we faced in March."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.