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Marshall softball: Herd ace ready to face Kentucky in NCAA regional

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Andi Williamson's memories of her first game against the University of Kentucky aren't all fond ones.

The Marshall University senior pitcher held a 3-1 lead going into bottom of the seventh against the then-No. 20 Wildcats. Then a pitch got away from catcher Katalin Lucas, who turned to grab the ball and fire it to second base to pick off a runner. Williamson was looking toward second and didn't see the throw coming, and it cracked her in the back of the head.

After a couple minutes on the ground, Williamson rose, walked back to the circle and demanded the ball. She stayed in the game, but the Wildcats rallied to win 4-3.

It's not often a player or a team gets a chance at redemption after a loss like that, but Williamson and the Thundering Herd get another shot at Kentucky on Friday in their first game of the NCAA Regional Tournament. The Herd (35-20), Conference USA Tournament champions, open against the 12th-seeded Wildcats (38-18) at 7:30 p.m.

"We didn't get to finish at our full potential," said Williamson, who missed five games with a concussion after that loss. "So I'm excited to go compete with them in a full game and show them what the Herd's made of."

This regional is the first in Marshall softball history, but not the first for Williamson. The 2009 West Virginia player of the year out of Chapmanville Regional High School, Williamson originally signed with the University of Tennessee and was a freshman when the Volunteers finished third in the 2010 College World Series.

After one season in Knoxville, she decided she wanted to play closer to home and transferred to Marshall, where she became one of the best pitchers in Herd history. Her 344 strikeouts this season shattered the mark of 270 set by Sara Gulla in 2001 and is second in Division I only to Hofstra pitcher Olivia Galati's total of 374. In her first game back after the concussion, Williamson struck out a school-record 16 against Ohio.

Marshall Coach Shonda Stanton said Williamson's fearlessness and competitive fire makes her as dominant as she is.

"Anytime she has the game ball, she gives us a chance to win the ballgame, no matter who we're playing," Stanton said.

"It makes everybody else more settled. It's not a situation where you feel you have to put up a tremendous amount of run support. We know she's going to have the capacity to limit hitters, limit run production from the other team. It just settles everybody."

Williamson agrees that her hard-charging, take-no-prisoners approach in the circle has helped her succeed.

"If they hit me, they're going to hit my weakness," she said. "I just want to go at people. I hate sitting around and just working around the plate. I like to go at people, because I'm not afraid of anyone."

Marshall senior outfielder Ashley Gue said Williamson steams full speed ahead everywhere, whether it's in games, in practice or in offseason workouts. Her determination, Gue said, is what makes her the pitcher she has become.

"You can't teach passion," said Gue, the Herd's leading hitter with a .344 average. "You can't teach love of the game and you definitely can't teach someone to be a competitor. That's just in your heart. That's you wanting it and getting after it day after day. That's what Andi is."

Now the Herd tries to get revenge against Kentucky, one of seven national seeds in the tournament from the SEC. But Marshall has the benefit of experience against Kentucky. It likely won't be the same atmosphere - a mid-season, mid-week game versus the home team's regional opener - but it's a familiar opponent and familiar surroundings. Stanton said her team is entering the game with confidence.

"What I'm excited about is this group's in it to win it," she said. "It's not a situation where we're happy to be just at the regional."

Williamson doesn't think her team will shrink in its maiden voyage into the NCAA postseason.

"I expect the best from us and I know we're going to go in there and give it our best," she said. "Anything less than a win is unsatisfactory with me."


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