Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Two on, two out. Top of the fifth. Liz Kocon stepped to the plate with one RBI in the game already and 116 in her career. On a 1-2 pitch, Kocon drilled a fly ball over the fence in right-center field to give Kansas a 4-0 lead against Wisconsin, which proved to be the final score in a game that marked victory No. 15 of a school-record 20-game winning streak.
Instantaneously, Kocon's teammates flooded out of the first-base dugout to greet the redshirt senior at home plate and congratulate the new RBI leader in Kansas softball history. For Kocon, the moment was the polar opposite of two years ago when she suffered a season-ending injury five games into the 2010 campaign by tearing the two deepest muscles in her hip.
"It's really cool for her to be the all-time RBI leader," said Kansas head coach Megan Smith. "That's a milestone that she'll always have and we'll always remember. I'll always remember it as a coach. The way it happened against a tough Big Ten team with a home run makes it even more special. I don't know if it gets more special, but I think it did with that. I'm really proud of her work ethic and her ability to bounce back from that injury. She brings that love of softball and love for this program everyday she comes out here. It's really special that it happened to a kid like that."
Kocon's second home run of the 2012 season marked the 30th of her career and gave her 119 career RBIs, passing 2006 Big 12 Player of the Year and Second Team All-American Serena Settlemier for the most in KU history.
"It's definitely a privilege and an honor," said Kocon. "Serena was a person that I really looked up to as a hitter when I was getting recruited. I watched her on TV when they won the Big 12 Championship. She hit 22 home runs her senior season after an arm injury. She was just a stud. It's just a really good feeling to know that I'm up there with those kinds of people in our record books."
Kocon now sits firmly atop the Kansas RBI chart with 129 while her 31 home runs are second-most in a Jayhawk career, trailing only Settlemier's 44. Kocon admits her ascension into the KU record book seemed unlikely when she first arrived on campus.
"I didn't think I would achieve so many records," said Kocon. "In high school and travel ball, I wasn't really the power hitter. I was more of a doubles and base-hit hitter. Then I started lifting and conditioning when I got here, and I got more power. I never lifted coming into college. It was definitely a transition. There would be weeks when I couldn't even walk straight when I first came back from summer. It's benefitted me a lot."
Kocon's climb to the top began in 2008 when she started 49 of the team's 56 games as a freshman, hitting five home runs and driving in 26 runners, the second-most on the club. Kocon followed up her strong freshman campaign with nine home runs and a team-high 30 RBIs her sophomore season. Poised for an even better junior year, Kocon recorded four RBIs in KU's first five games, but a rare injury suffered in practice sidelined her for the remainder of the season.
"We were indoors taking routine outfield drills," recalled Kocon. "One was down at my ankle, and I probably would have slid and dove for it outside, but on turf we don't do that. I went down with my glove trying to catch it, my shoe caught on the turf and it jammed my hip. I knew immediately that something was wrong. I couldn't walk right. We didn't know the severity of it until after I got my MRI. Even the doctor said that he had only seen one or two other ones like that."
The MRI revealed that Kocon had torn the two deepest muscles in her hip. Initially, surgery was considered to repair the injury, but ultimately, the doctors determined it could heal naturally over time with an extended rehab process.
"It was a relief that I could heal it naturally, but it was a long process," said Kocon. "A lot of it was time and stretching to get the swelling down. Then, after my muscles started coming back together, I went into our Aquatic Rehabilitation Center and got on the water treadmill. It took me months to recover fully and get my stride back correctly. Still today, I have to stretch continuously and make sure it's always loose because it tightens up really easily."
Kocon couldn't swing a bat fully for four months, but she remained an integral part of the 2010 Kansas softball team by cheering on her Jayhawks from the dugout.
"She was at every practice and every game watching," said Smith, who was in her first season as the team's head coach when Kocon sustained the injury. "She certainly was a big part of the development of those young players who are now juniors. I think she learned a lot, too. She gained a different perspective for the game. She understood how much her mental game matters and how much of an impact she can have on a team without playing. Now, she not only has an impact on the field, but she makes sure that she brings that impact off the field as well, between innings, in the dugout and at practice."
Kocon believes the year off gave her a greater appreciation for the game she loves. She displayed that new passion by returning in 2011 with numerous career highs, including a .322 batting average, 14 home runs, 40 RBIs, 34 runs scored, 30 walks and eight doubles.
"It definitely motivated me more because I missed out a year on the sport I love," said Kocon. "It helped me want to come out hungrier to play. I wanted to come out and prove to myself that the injury wasn't going to set me back. I could be better and stronger than I was before the injury. It worked out."
Coach Smith agrees that regardless of the final RBI count and where she ends up on other Jayhawk record lists, Kocon's impact on the game and the KU softball program has been much more than mere statistics.
"She's just been a fun player to coach and watch on a daily basis," said Smith. "It's been fun to see how she inspires everybody else around her to have fun with the game. A lot of people lose that, but she hasn't."