When softball opponents see Kentucky junior Abbey Cheek at the plate, they often proceed with caution.
The Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, Cheek has been walked 64 times during a season in which she bashed 18 home runs.
Each time Cheek walked, Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson seethed.
“Abbey is an amazing hitter, so teams will just walk her,” said Kentucky junior Alex Martens, a McHenry West graduate. “I remember Coach Lawson saying, ‘We need to find somebody who can bat behind Abbey and make them pay for what they did.”
In a season of shifting lineups, Martens has emerged as a go-to bat behind Cheek, leading the 14th-ranked Wildcats (36-22) into this weekend’s NCAA Division I super regional series at No. 3 Washington.
For the past 24 games, Martens has been in the No. 4 slot right behind Cheek. The switch has allowed Martens, who plays second base, to drive in a school-record 66 runs while posting career bests in batting average (.315) and home runs (13), along with hits (57) and slugging percentage (.602).
Martens credits a relaxed approach at the plate for her breakthrough season and helping break open plenty of games with her bat.
“When you start stressing about, ‘I have to score her, and I have to do this,’ it takes away from that moment and that pitch,” she said. “As you get more experience, you learn the mental side of the game. It’s such a demanding game, so as you mature, you figure out what you need to do to prepare for each individual at-bat and for each pitch.”
That preparation has allowed Martens, a second-team All-SEC selection, to come through time and again this season.
In helping the Wildcats to the Lexington Regional title last weekend, she batted .363 in three games with eight RBIs and two home runs.
“It means everything when you succeed at what you want to do for your team,” Martens said. “When you score runs, you win games. And when you win games, you go to the World Series.”
When she’s driving in runs and helping Kentucky light up the scoreboard, Martens admits she has a simple motivation.
“I really pride myself on making McHenry proud,” she said. “When I wake up and see texts from people [back home], it makes my heart warm. My heart is still in McHenry softball. I want to make that program proud.”
After back-to-back seasons of being eliminated in the super regionals, Martens said she believes the Wildcats are ready to take the next step.
“My freshman year, we were two games away from the World Series,” she said. “Last year, we were only one game away. This year, we’ve made the adjustments. We’re all very excited to show the world what Kentucky softball is all about.”
Aiming for Series, Part II: In Division II baseball, the University of Illinois at Springfield (40-15-1) is in Ohio to face Ashland University in a three-game NCAA super regional series, which continues Saturday and Sunday.
The winner advances to the DII World Series.
Freshman catcher/second baseman Brandon Bannon (Richmond-Burton) has had a strong debut college season, batting .346 with 38 RBIs and 11 doubles.
The Stars’ roster also includes sophomore relief pitcher and fellow R-B grad Joe Dittmar (19 strikeouts in 152/3 innings) and freshman pitcher A.J. Golembiewski (Marian Central).
Aiming for Series, Part III: In Division III baseball, Hampshire grad Alex Crinigan and his Concordia Chicago teammates are aiming for their third consecutive trip to the NCAA World Series as they play in the super regionals this weekend.
Crinigan, a junior pitcher in his first season at Concordia, is part of a strong pitching staff. He is 5-2 this season with a 3.17 ERA, 51 strikeouts and only nine walks in 582/3 innings. Opposing batters are hitting only .265 against him this season for the Cougars (42-8), who won their own regional last weekend.
The three-game series continues Saturday and Sunday in River Forest against Webster University.
CCAC standouts: St. Xavier senior second baseman Garrett Bright was one of four local athletes honored on the NAIA All-Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference baseball teams.
Bright, a Crystal Lake South grad, earned first-team honors after batting .324 with 34 RBIs. He also earned a spot on the Gold Glove team.
The second team included Judson senior first baseman Jared Ludwig (Dundee-Crown) and Roosevelt senior shortstop Matt Kozlak (Jacobs).
Ludwig led the Eagles (15-32) with a .350 average, while hitting 11 homers and driving in 44 runs. He also was selected for the National Christian College Athletic Association All-Central Region first team.
Kozlak posted a team-leading .394 average to go with nine doubles, 20 stolen bases and a .527 on-base percentage for the Lakers (14-28).
Fellow South grad Griffin Bright, a sophomore outfielder at SXU (34-17), was chosen for the Gold Glove team. He completed the season without making an error while batting .338 in 49 games.
Augustana achiever: Senior Bryan Haage (Huntley) was named the Commitment to Excellence Award winner this spring for the DIII Augustana College men’s swimming program.
Haage was a member of the school record-setting 200-meter freestyle relay (1:24.39), set in 2016. He ranks second in school history in the 200 (1:53.98) and 400 (4:12.08) individual medley events, and he also has top-10 times in school history in the 50, 100 and 200 freestyles.
• Barry Bottino writes a weekly column about local college athletes for the Northwest Herald. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @BarryOnCampus on Twitter.