Too many firsts to count for Duke and espnW player of the week Katherine Huey
Katherine Huey was at the center of the most successful week in the history of Duke softball.
All right, it was also the second week in the history of Duke softball, at least as far as playing regular-season games goes. And that makes the first claim a sturdier limb to climb out on.
College softball's newest program won all four of its games against Penn State and Purdue in the portion of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge played this past weekend in Durham, North Carolina. Those two Big Ten teams have more than 50 seasons of NCAA softball between them. Duke is the first new program in one of the five power conferences in more than a decade. For the 12 freshmen and handful of transfers who are the Blue Devils, every day is a foray into the unknown.
For instance, Huey didn't know when she woke up Friday that she would be the starting pitcher in Duke's first ever home game. Nor did she know what it felt like to bat in a college game.
All the freshman knew for sure was that she had a chemistry quiz that morning.
"I did really well, which I was very happy about," Huey said. "So that started my morning well."
You take the building blocks where you can find them.
The afternoon and evening weren't bad, either. By the time the day was done, she not only started and earned the win in the program's home opener as a pitcher, but she also hit her first career home run and drove in the eventual winning run. And by the time the weekend was done, Huey hit .583 with a .643 on-base percentage and 1.167 slugging percentage, driving in more than a quarter of Duke's 26 runs in the process, and earned two wins in the circle.
In a season that will be all about firsts, Huey is Duke's first espnW national player of the week.
Huey was productive throughout the weekend, at least one hit in every game and RBIs in all but one, but Friday's home opener against the Nittany Lions set the tone for both her and the team.
Huey made her mark in travel ball almost exclusively as a pitcher on teams with deep rosters. She picked up a bat only when she played in the less competitive surroundings of high school softball. So while she started in the pitching circle and earned the win in Duke's first official game last week, against Florida Atlantic in a tournament in Boca Raton, it wasn't a surprise that she didn't register a plate appearance during that five-game trip. Yet Huey also told herself when she committed to Duke that with a small roster, she might be able to help by swinging the bat. And so after a good week in practice, she was in the batting order as well as pitching Friday.
Things didn't go exactly according to plan in the circle. Huey felt good about what she was throwing but missed with a few pitches. On a cool rainy evening, the defense also made some errors behind her. Penn State jumped out to a 5-0 lead, three of the runs earned.
That might have caused a lot of freshmen to lose focus, let alone a freshman playing the first home game in a program's history. But when Huey came to the plate in the fourth inning for just her second college at-bat, she didn't let the early adversity in the circle cloud her mind.
In fact, chemistry quiz completed, she more or less gave her mind the evening off.
"One kind of joke we have on our team is I don't ever really think when I get up to bat," Huey said of the contrast with more technical hitters. "I get up to bat and the only thing I tell myself is 'Keep your shoulders relaxed and breathe.' That's all I think about the whole time. ... All I thought in my mind was 'Get back on your back leg and get ready to load up because she's probably throwing you one across the plate.' I just stayed relaxed and trusted my swing."
With a runner on base, her first career home run (and the program's first) cut the deficit to 5-3.
An inning later, with the score tied 5-5, Huey delivered an RBI single. Then she returned to the circle, and with some help from reliever Amelia Wiercioch on the final out, made the lead hold up.
Maybe it won't always be like this, but despite playing opponents with equal means and far more experience, no team did any better last week than Duke.
And no one had more to do with that than Huey.
"I think it really helped boost our confidence," Huey said. "Coming off a 4-0 weekend, I wouldn't say that we're cocky, but we have the mentality now that we know we can get this done, and even though we're all very young, we're able to play with the best of the best."
Previous winner: Washington's Kirstyn Thomas (Feb. 14)