The 2009 season loomed just around the corner, and Kristin Ryman was entering her fourth season as Lipscomb’s softball coach.
The Bison had made strides over three years, as their win total climbed from 14 to 25 and up to 28 in 2008, when they captured their first Atlantic Sun Conference championship.
The program was on the rise, but Ryman believed she was without one important piece. She needed the missing link that would propel the Bison into an NCAA Tournament contender.
Whitney Kiihnl was that “difference maker.” A 5-foot-8 right-hander from Batesville, Miss., Kiihnl had the tools, Ryman thought, to step onto the mound as a freshman and stifle the competition.
“She is that type of player you can really build a program around,” Ryman said. “My first recruiting class was a very, very good group of ballplayers — a lot of really good hitters in that group, kids that had started since they were freshmen. And she was kind of that missing piece that we needed to really start competing more nationally.”
Three years later, those beliefs have been affirmed.
On Friday, Lipscomb begins its 2012 season at the Mardi Gras Tournament in Mobile, Ala. Kiihnl, now a senior, will take the mound for the beginning of the final chapter in what arguably is the area’s most decorated collegiate softball career.
Her résumé includes six no-hitters, 71 wins, 902 strikeouts and tons of individual awards. She’s garnered every individual conference honor — freshman, pitcher and player of the year. In 2010, when she went 33-5, led the nation in ERA (0.95) and guided Lipscomb to its first NCAA Tournament in school history, she earned third-team All-American honors from Louisville Slugger and the National Fastpitch Coaches Association.
“I really didn’t know what to expect coming into college. I didn’t know how I would fare out in the college competition,” Kiihnl said. “I have enjoyed playing softball, and that is what it is about.”
It didn’t take her long to create expectations.
In her collegiate debut on Feb. 13, 2009, she matched up against No. 19 Louisiana-Lafayette. Kiihnl didn’t back down, pitching a complete game and striking out seven, including four looking. Though the Bison lost, Kiihnl’s teammates walked away impressed.
“To be a freshman and come in, and your first game is against somebody of that magnitude ... I think from that moment on I think the team really grasped how good she could be and how good she could make our team,” Ryman said. “We knew she was going to be something special.”
And Kiihnl held a mutual impression of Lipscomb.
Growing up in a town of less than 8,000, she quickly took to softball, starting to play at age 5 and stepping onto the mound six years later. Her dominance in high school — she was twice named Mississippi’s Gatorade Player of the Year and led her school, South Panola, to consecutive state championships — didn’t go unnoticed.
Big schools such as Mississippi State recruited her heavily. The Bulldogs also were a rising program, having reached the NCAA Tournament seven times in the previous nine years.
But Kiihnl felt a deeper connection with Lipscomb.
“At the end of the day I just realized I would probably grow more spiritually here than at Mississippi State,” Kiihnl said. “I kind of wanted to get out of the state, and I really liked Nashville. I just liked Lipscomb. It was the best fit for me.”
Kiihnl has been formidable in the classroom as well. The three-time Atlantic Sun All-Academic Team honoree has a 3.68 GPA and is pursuing her degree in biology. She hopes to become a physician’s assistant.
In the meantime, she has baffled opposing hitters with an arsenal of four pitches at high speeds.
She picked up 18 victories as a freshman and then quieted opposing bats as a sophomore. She pitched 19 complete games and five no-hitters that season, striking out 344 in 237 innings.
“At the college level you have to have movement. You can’t just throw hard and get by with it,” Kiihnl said. “You have to have some movement and mix it up. An out is an out. I don’t really go in there thinking, ‘Oh, let me try to strike her out.’ But if it happens, it is awesome.”
As she pitched into her junior season, however, Kiihnl did begin to think.
The 2010 season kept popping into her mind. She wanted to be at the level again, to replicate those amazing numbers.
Her statistics dipped. She still went 20-11 with 328 strikeouts and a 1.69 ERA. But Ryman noticed a difference.
“When you have a year that strong, that early in your career, I think it takes a toll on you,” Ryman said. “I think it weighs a little bit on your mind a little differently. She came into last year and she was the same pitcher, but she, I think, started thinking too much about trying to reproduce those numbers. She didn’t want to let anybody down. I think she put too much pressure on herself and tried to do a little too much and got a little frustrated at times.”
After finishing second in the Atlantic Sun and missing the NCAA Tournament last year, the Bison are eyeing a return trip to the postseason and their third conference crown.
Kiihnl again will play a huge part in reaching those goals, but she isn’t trying to shoulder the entire load.
While she is still the centerpiece, she is not the only piece.
“Our team then was built differently than our team now. She has to understand the pieces around her have changed also,” Ryman said. “It is not necessarily all revolving around her. If she can just do what she does and keep it simple, then she is going to give us a shot to win every time.”