Batting in the leadoff spot was something Emily Miller had never done in her high school career at Marian Central.
“Honestly, I’ve always hated leading off,” Miller said. “Whenever I would have to lead off an inning, I would always dread it. There was that pressure of being the first one up and not wanting to be the first one to make an out.”
Now a freshman center fielder at NCAA Division III North Central College, Miller has embraced her least favorite spot in the Cardinals’ softball lineup.
She has batted leadoff in every game for the Cardinals (18-2), who have won nine games in a row and are 4-0 in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin.
Miller ranks among the top 15 nationally with an impressive .565 batting average, a .615 on-base percentage and 20 doubles.
“It’s been very different,” said Miller, who was a No. 3 hitter throughout high school. “It’s been quite a change, but I’ve adjusted pretty well, I’d say. I’m enjoying it.”
In a doubleheader sweep of Elmhurst on Thursday, Miller was 6 for 8 at the plate with five runs scored, four RBIs and three doubles.
What she once dreaded about starting off a game or inning is now what she appreciates about the role.
“I get to take that first crack at the pitcher,” she said. “I haven’t changed my approach at all (from the No. 3 spot).”
Miller’s tendency to drive the ball and get on base has revved up the NCC offense, which leads the CCIW in batting average and doubles.
“My stats have surprised me a little,” she said. “When Coach (Jim Kulawiak) said, ‘You’re in the leadoff spot,’ I said, ‘OK. Sure. We’ll try.’ I went along with it and just nodded. I thought, ‘Well, I’m batting so I can’t complain.’ I’ll just do my best.”
Miller’s best has been a major boost for the Cardinals. She has scored a team-high 30 runs and driven in 11. Those 41 runs are 21 percent of North Central’s season run total.
Miller said her early success is due in part to playing a tough high school schedule against teams such as Marengo, Marist and Marian Catholic.
“As a freshman, I just wanted to be a starter,” she said. “I’m proud of myself for being able to not let college scare me. I give a lot of credit to Marian Central softball for that.”
Kaska thrives for Warhawks: Richmond-Burton grad Michael Kaska earned the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Baseball Pitcher of the Week award after not allowing a run in two starts last week.
Kaska, a junior at D-III Wisconsin-Whitewater, is 4-1 as the top starter for the Warhawks (15-2), who are ranked No. 2 nationally by D3Baseball.com. Kaska has a team-leading 1.19 ERA, along with 29 strikeouts and only seven walks in 30 1/3 innings. Against Illinois Tech last week, he struck out six in five scoreless innings. He followed that effort with eight scoreless innings and six strikeouts against Wisconsin-Stout.
Whitewater’s offense has received a boost from junior designated hitter Cal Aldridge of Prairie Ridge, who is batting .435 with a conference leading seven home runs. Aldridge has a team-high 23 RBIs to go along with an .887 slugging percentage.
NIU gymnast Potts shines: Northern Illinois senior gymnast Ashley Potts (Prairie Ridge) ended her season last weekend competing in the NCAA South Central Regional in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
As an all-around competitor, Potts started the event with her best two scores on the floor and vault with identical 9.775s. She posted a 9.750 on the beam and a 9.350 on the uneven bars.
Potts earned second-team All-Mid-American Conference honors during the regular season and at the conference championships. She was the MAC’s Gymnast of the Week three times this season.
For her career, Potts has eight scores in the top 10 in school history, including three each in the all-around and bars.
Power play for Mattson: McHenry East grad Carly Mattson was 3 for 3 with her seventh homer of the season Wednesday for D-I Austin Peay’s softball team.
Mattson has 16 RBIs on the season for the Governors (24-12), the program’s most victories in a season since 2007. A junior catcher, Mattson has started 35 games this season and is batting .245.
Lewis throws leader: Lewis University junior Kianna Clark won the hammer throw last weekend at the Bellarmine Invitational in Louisville, Ky., with the second-best throw of the season in the D-II Great Lakes Valley Conference.
Clark, a Crystal Lake South grad, won the event with a throw of 166 feet, 8 inches, her best throw of the outdoor season.
Jacobs grad earns UIC scholarship honor: UIC sophomore men’s tennis player Kailash Panchapakesan was awarded the school’s Thomas Beckham Memorial Scholarship Monday at the athletic department’s annual Academic Awards banquet.
A biological sciences major, Panchapakesan also was recognized as one of only 10 UIC athletes to achieve 4.0 grade-point averages over the past three consecutive semesters.
On the court, Panchapakesan is 5-7 in singles and 4-3 in doubles player.
• Barry Bottino writes a weekly column about local college athletes for the Northwest Herald. Write to him at email@example.com and follow @BarryOnCampus on Twitter.