LAWRENCE – The starting pitcher grew up in Blue Springs, in the heart of Mizzou country, so of course she wants to play the Tigers. Kelsey Kessler is just slightly worried about saying this. Same goes for the entire Kansas softball team.
Kessler, a sophomore right-hander, will lead the Jayhawks into an NCAA regional on Friday, their first trip to the postseason since 2006. That the regional site is in Columbia, Mo., has only ratcheted up the intrigue. KU softball could become the first Jayhawks team to face Missouri since the Tigers left the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference in 2012.
But first, the Jayhawks (33-21) will face Nebraska (40-15) at 12:30 p.m., and No. 15 seed Missouri (41-16) will face Bradley, so the awkward moment comes next. Sure, Kessler would love to take a crack at Missouri, the bitter rival and softball power down the road. But they can’t quite say that just yet.
“This is a little more special for me,” Kessler said. “I’ve always wanted to play Missouri at Missouri. Of course, we’re going to focus on Nebraska first, 100 percent. But I think the opportunity would be good. I think it brings more public interest to softball that we don’t always get.”
The public interest received a mild spike earlier this week, when Mizzou infielder Corrin Genovese fired some shots toward Lawrence after the NCAA regional pairings were announced.
“I know they’re kind of scared to play us in football and basketball,” Genovese told Rivals.com, “so it’s good that we can keep tradition going and hopefully let them know who’s boss and who will always be better in the rivalry.”
In the age of social media, the comments quickly filtered their way toward the KU softball team.
“You try to ignore it,” said junior pitcher Alicia Pille, who has split time on the mound with Kessler this season. “They’re going to say what they’re going to say. I hope we get the opportunity to play them, I really do. We’re going to bring it.”
For Kessler, the motivation runs deeper than some bulletin-board material. She grew up in Blue Springs, setting the Missouri record for wins with 93 in a four-year career at Blue Springs High. Two of her former high school teammates — Ashtin Stevens and Mackenzie Sykes — headed to Columbia to play for the home-state school, but Kessler felt a connection to KU.
She committed after her sophomore year, stuck to her word, and began her college career last season with a 2.19 ERA and the 23rd no-hitter in school history against Texas Tech.
This year, Kessler is 19-14 with a 2.41 ERA in 41 appearances. But Pille has been nearly as effective, recording a 2.45 ERA in 28 appearances. Kansas coach Megan Smith said she’ll wait until Friday to reveal her starting pitcher against Nebraska.
“We play best as a team when Kelsey and I are both on fire,” a native of Royse City, Texas. “She pushes me to be better, and I push her to be better.”
Together, they have helped push a building Kansas program over the hump. After a close call last season, the Jayhawks put together a resume worthy of the postseason.
“This was our goal all along, to get to postseason,” Smith said. “I feel like the last couple years we’ve been really close and not quite there yet.”
For now, Kessler says, the Jayhawks are trying to focus on softball, not the potential rekindling of the Border War. But if the opportunity, the Jayhawks would certainly relish the chance.
“They’re going to say what they’re going to say,” Pille said. “They’re just trying to get a rise out of people. You can’t not be mad when someone says something like that, but there’s no reason to say anything back to it. It’s not really the most mature thing they could have done.”