How Miami (Ohio) became the best power-hitting team in America

Miami (OH) stuns Oklahoma with back-to-back jacks (0:48)

Karli Spaid and Holly Blaska stun the Sooners with back-to-back home runs to give the RedHawks an early 3-0 lead. (0:48)

MIAMI (OHIO) THIRD BASEMAN Karli Spaid stepped to home plate, and looked around, taking in the scene. She understood the magnitude of this historic day in Oklahoma, as the top-ranked and three-time defending national champion Sooners opened their brand new, state-of-the-art softball stadium to a sold-out crowd in March.

Before the game started, she told her teammates to take a breath and remember how hard they had worked to make it here. She told herself the same thing as she stood there, waiting for a pitch to hit.

"Keep it simple," she told herself. "Focus on hitting the ball." The pitcher delivered her first offering. Spaid knew she could hit this one. She took her cut.

"Off the bat, it felt amazing," she said. "I probably won't feel like that ever again."

Spaid screamed as she rounded the bases, then jump-skipped the entire way to the dugout to her overjoyed teammates. She had just hit the first home run in Love's Field history, much to the chagrin of the Oklahoma crowd. Not one person expected the history-making homer to come from a mid-major player with zero Power 5 offers out of high school.

Miami was not done, though. The next batter, Holly Blaska, hit a home run of her own. In the seventh inning, Spaid hit another. Jenna Golembiewski hit one and so did Allie Cummins. The RedHawks hit five home runs against the defending national champions. Miami played the Sooners close off the power of those home runs, but ultimately fell short 9-7.

Rather than feeling discouraged, they felt optimistic.

"I feel like that game showed us, this year is going to be really, really special," Spaid said.

Since coach Kirin Kumar took over the program for the 2021 season, the RedHawks have become one of the best power-hitting teams in the nation. But doing it on the road, in Norman, against softball's premier team signaled bigger things to come.

It all begged the question: How did a small softball program in Oxford, Ohio, turn into a home run factory?

The RedHawks lead the nation with 159 home runs (two away from breaking Oklahoma's NCAA single-season record of 161 in 2021) and an average of 9.17 runs per game. Spaid, the MAC Player of the Year, leads the nation in home runs (36, two away from setting the single-season record held by Arizona's Laura Espinoza in 1995) and moved into second place on the NCAA career home run list with 104, behind Oklahoma's Joceyln Alo (122). Golembiewski is second in the nation in home runs (28).

Miami and Oklahoma are the only two teams to rank in the top 10 in home runs in each of the past four seasons. While the country has watched the Sooners rise to become the best softball program in the country, the RedHawks have been quietly rewriting the record books outside the national spotlight. But they want that to change this postseason.

They want more.

KUMAR GOT A call about interviewing for the Miami head-coaching job in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. She interviewed over Zoom and thought there was no way she would get the position. Yet in September 2020, she found herself walking on the Miami campus for the first time, as a first-time head coach.

Softball has always been a part of her life and hitting her passion. As a player at Georgia Tech, Kumar steadily improved as a hitter, batting .322 as a senior and making the 2005 All-ACC tournament team.

From there, she worked her way up the assistant coaching ranks. At her first stop in Tulsa, she helped Lauren Lindsay hit a single-season team record of 18 home runs in 2010. Then in 2015, she helped Tulsa lead its conference in batting average, slugging percentage and home runs. Before arriving at Miami, she coached at Virginia Tech, one of the best home-run-hitting schools in the country.

She loves the art of teaching players to hit, specialized for each one, based purely on mechanics and repetition. The goal is for their swing to become so ingrained in their muscle memory that it feels as if they have been swinging this way their entire lives.

She inherited a Miami team that was known for its pitching and defense. In softball, there is often a belief that those two areas can take any program far. It worked for Miami. In 2019, averaging 4.3 runs per game, the RedHawks won the MAC regular-season crown.

However, Kumar aimed to change that from Day 1, and set a goal. She wanted her team to lead the nation in doubles.

"Pitching and defense allow your offense to win the game," Kumar said. "It doesn't matter how good your pitching is. If you don't score a run, you're not going to win. It's not a philosophy of power hitting or anything. The philosophy is to score more runs than the other team."

A month in, Kumar felt nervous about hitting that doubles goal. She remembers a conversation with athletic director David Sayler, who sat in the stands to watch practice.

"How's it going?" he asked.

"Well, our pitching and defense are really good," she said.

As for the hitting?

"I was really, really worried," she said.

Then came the season opener at Mississippi State. It was frigid, 24 degrees. This was not only the debut for Kumar, but the first game played in nearly one calendar year. Kumar watched her team hit, and not give up on pitches, and stay in the game after going down 4-0 after the first inning. One home run, four doubles, 10 hits and a 10-9 loss later, Kumar and her players felt they had something.

The next weekend, they went on the road again, this time to Tennessee. Miami dropped the first game of a doubleheader 7-3. After the game, Kumar asked her players one question.

"Do you guys believe you can beat a Power 5 team?"

They all said yes.

Kumar said nothing more. In the second game, Miami beat one of the best pitchers in the country, Ashley Rogers, 2-0.

"That's when I knew, 'OK, they believed everything I was saying," Kumar said.

That buy-in can sometimes be difficult, especially with a new coaching staff reteaching the entire team how to swing and hit. But as soon as the players started to see the results, the belief turned into confidence, and the confidence turned into more patience at the plate and that turned into a MAC tournament championship and NCAA tournament appearance.

Miami did, indeed, lead the nation in doubles in 2021 with 116. But more unexpectedly, Miami finished ninth in the nation with a single-season school record 88 home runs. In 2019, Miami hit 44.

Spaid had also arrived at Miami in the fall of 2021. She had initially committed to Loyola Chicago, but coaching changes there led her to reevaluating where she wanted to be. Eager to play away from her Chicago hometown, she took a visit to Miami and fell in love with the campus. The players were welcoming, and Miami had recent success. She calls her decision a "no-brainer."

But she arrived without any expectations of playing. She was far from a power hitter. Spaid had told her travel coach before leaving for college she would be happy to be used as a pinch runner.

Her transformation happened alongside her teammates. Spaid was named 2021 MAC Freshman of the Year and hit 17 home runs -- a school record at the time.

"It's kind of crazy to look back on my expectations going into college just hoping to touch the field, and then to see where I am today," Spaid said. "It's pretty special."

"They trusted what I was bringing here and the process of hitting, and what we were doing as a new coaching staff works," Kumar said. "And then not giving up, right? Because Karli was in and out of our lineup her freshman year and at no point did she say, 'This is stupid. I want to do what I did in travel ball' or 'I want to do what I did in high school.'

"We taught them their swing, and we gave them ownership of their swing. Did I think [the home run record] was going to happen? No. Did I know we were going to be better? Yes. It has been fun to watch."

Kumar says the first thing they do during fall practice is teach mechanics and "what a real swing is supposed to look like. What does a great swing look like and feel like to you? You have to learn that first."

At a program without the same technology as bigger, better-funded programs, that simplicity and repetition is important.

"I think some people have so much technology that they're so worried about numbers and all this stuff," Kumar said. "I can promise you I have no idea what Jenna or Karli's exit speed is. I have zero idea. I don't know if they know. We've never tested it. Hitting is extremely, extremely difficult, and I think we try to make it as simple as possible. Because when you make things simple, it becomes easier.

"It's trusting the process. Hitting is repetitive and I think people get away from that. They want this new drill or this new drill. No. You have to be able to do the same thing, the right thing, over and over again."

Golembiewski arrived on campus in 2022. Like Spaid, she was not a power hitter in high school. In fact, she still has the goals she set for herself saved into Notes on her iPhone: She wanted to set the school stolen base record. That goal has become an inside joke between herself and her dad as her home-run-hitting abilities have taken off. "He's like, 'Well, you have to get on first to beat that record,'" Golembiewski said with a laugh. "I guess that one's out the window now."

She can laugh about that now, but getting to this point was not easy for her. That first fall was trying. "I could not correct my swing to save my life," she said.

Kumar created a device out of PVC pipe to place under Golembiewski's elbow to remind her to keep it elevated. The device was cumbersome, so they got rid of it, but slowly Golembiewski started to figure it out with more repetition and a change in mindset. Rather than tell herself, 'Don't drop your hands,' she would tell herself, 'Keep your hands up.'

"Your brain doesn't pick up the word 'don't,'" Golembiewski said. "So working around the things you don't want to do and turning them positive is really helpful."

Kumar recalls a moment the fall of Golembiewski's freshman year as a turning point. Golembiewski had just hit a home run. As she returned to the dugout, Kumar saw tears in her eyes.

"I told you that you could hit like Spaid," Kumar recalls telling Golembiewski.

"Everyone's always given up on me hitting," Golembiewski said.

"I will never give up on you hitting," Kumar told her.

Golembiewski did not start that year, but stuck it out to become the MAC Player of the Year as a sophomore in 2023, after hitting .306 with 41 hits, 36 RBI, 17 home runs and a .761 slugging percentage.

Spaid once again set the school career home run record in 2023, and her emergence dovetailed with the rise of the transfer portal era. She said she received interest through intermediaries about transferring somewhere else, but that was never a consideration.

"I knew that we would just continue to grow and I had a lot of faith in the girls on the team and the program," Spaid said. "I knew we were going to do something really special because we had been knocking at the door every year, and I wanted to be a part of it. I also find a lot of pride in staying at a school for four years and making a name for myself and being loyal."

"I guarantee you if someone thought Spaid could hit that like, that Jenna could hit like that, out of high school they probably wouldn't be here," Kumar said. "I didn't know they were going to do this, but I knew they could hit."

HEADED INTO THIS season, Miami returned a veteran team. Golembiewski and Spaid came back, along with Cummins, Blaska and Kate Kobayashi. With that leadership comes more trust in their swing, and more power after four or five years spent in the weight room.

Kumar said coaches often do not even need to talk to the players about their swing because they already know how to adjust on the next at-bat.

That goes for practice, too. Kumar said they cannot take batting practice on their field and risk losing all their balls over the fence and into the pond behind it. "We'd have to get a net and boots on," Kumar said. "We don't have the money to keep buying balls so we don't do that."

Still, as fall practice wore on, Kumar was unsure they could top what they did last year. Then, they did.

"It's still like, 'Whoa,'" Kumar said. "They don't give up. They don't care who's pitching. They're showing out. I'm just in awe every day watching them practice and play."

Through the MAC tournament, Spaid, Golembiewski and Kobayashi have hit 20 or more home runs. Seven players have hit 10 or more home runs, including freshman Sami Bewick and sophomore Reagan Bartholomew. That is tied with Oklahoma (2020-21) for the most players with 10 or more home runs in the past five seasons.

"It's unreal," Golembiewski said. "Some of the best advice we get in games is to keep swinging, and it's really cool because we eventually figure it out. We keep chipping at it."

And they have done it against anyone -- nonconference and conference opponents. Oklahoma is one example. So is Louisiana.

After the loss to the Sooners, Miami had to regroup right away and play against top 25-ranked Louisiana. Miami won 12-10, with four home runs. When Miami played Western Michigan in mid-March, the Broncos pitching staff had given up 10 total home runs. Miami hit 13 in three games.

"The numbers, you can't ignore them this year," Spaid said. "Every single year, we just get better and better when it comes to our offense, and it's exciting that we're finally getting recognition for it and people are starting to see Miami softball in different eyes than just a mid-major school. We're very prideful of that."

Hitting home runs is fun, but there are bigger goals ahead. Miami has been eliminated from the regional round of the NCAA tournament in each of the past three years.

Getting to the super regionals and then ultimately the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City is what this team wants.

"We talk a lot about how this team has no ceiling, and we also talk about how we want to do things that Miami softball has never done, especially in the tournament," Spaid said. "So I think it would just mean a lot, especially with all the hard work this year. It would be a cherry on top of what has been an amazing ride."