There was a steadiness to the progression of Brittany Fortner’s breakthrough season that, for the last two-plus weeks, has ceased to exist.
Since March 29, Fortner, a sophomore outfielder, has become perhaps the most dangerous hitter on the Wichita State softball team, a strong statement considering the lineup depth displayed during a 12-0 run-rule win over Missouri State Wednesday at Wilkins Stadium.
The Shockers (26-17, 13-3) hit four home runs during a six-run fourth inning, an accomplishment that may have equaled the five-inning no-hitter from Kaitlyn Malone.
Fortner homered in the fourth, her second of the game, to cap a six-RBI performance that also included a first-inning RBI double. After early-season difficulties dropped her from the leadoff spot, Fortner has thrived as a run producer for the Missouri Valley Conference-leading Shockers.
“She put the work in,” WSU coach Kristi Bredbenner said. “(First baseman) Cacy Williams and Brittany hit every single day. It doesn’t matter if we have a three-hour practice, they’re still going to come in and get some extra reps that morning or before practice at some point, and it’s shown.
“(Fortner) is hitting the ball great. She’s having a great eye. She’s really matured. If you look at her numbers for the first couple weeks, she was frustrated. She went from our leadoff to sixth, but she’s worked her way back up. This second half of the season, she’s been on an absolute tear, and it’s all because of the work she’s put in.”
In WSU’s last nine conference games dating to late March, Fortner has batted .677 (21 for 31) with three homers, six doubles and 18 RBIs. That has helped raise her average from .256 to .344, more than 100 points better than her .241 mark from her freshman season.
The Shockers have relied upon newcomers such as Williams, Liz Broyles, Paige Luellen and Paige Mason for a dramatic turnaround after finishing 19-33 last season, but improvement from Fortner and junior Melanie Jaegers, whose average has jumped from .257 to .331, has been equally crucial.
“Me, (Ali Vandever) and Mel are the only returners, but we couldn’t just rely on the newcomers,” Fortner said. “We knew we would have to step up, and I think Ali and Mel have done a good job stepping up.”
The Shockers have five players with 20 or more RBIs after one player reached that mark last year. That depth enabled Bredbenner to stick with Fortner after Fortner began the season with two hits in 30 at-bats.
The work ethic, however, never left, and it – along with Bredbenner’s patience – has been rewarded as Fortner has hit .426 since the slow start.
“She’s an excellent left fielder – she doesn’t miss a lot of balls,” Bredbenner said. “She doesn’t look like the quintessential outfielder, she’s got a little size on her. She moves well, she gets a great jump on the ball, and she gets to balls that you never think she’s going to get to. That reason alone is why you hang out with her during her hitting struggles and you know that she’s going to get through it.”
Malone, a freshman from Crete, Neb., struck out three while improving to 14-5. The Bears had three baserunners — the first on a first-inning error by shortshop Kelli Spring, and the others via leadoff walks in the second and third innings. Malone improved to 6-2 with a 2.59 ERA against Valley teams.
Williams hit her team-leading 10th homer to lead off the fourth inning.
|Missouri St.||000||00||—||0 0 1|
|Wichita St.||240||6x||—||12 16 1|
W — Malone (14-5). L — Jones (9-5). HR — Williams, Fortner 2, Broyles, Mason.
WSU batting: Williams 3-4, Jaegers 1-2, Hitz 0-1, Fortner 3-3, Baker 0-0, Broyoles 2-3, Luellen 1-3, Mason 1-3, Vandever 1-3, Johnson 3-3, Spring 1-3.
WSU pitching: Malone 5 IP, 0 ER.