Keim starts to swing away for Iowa softball


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Katie Keim and Liz Watkins slugged back-to-back home runs in Iowa softball's loss to Iowa State on Wednesday in the fourth and fifth spots of the lineup.

Watkins stands 5-11 and powered the most long balls — 9 — of any Iowa player last year. Keim is only 5-6 and hit leadoff last year, where she tallied only 4 homers.

But this year, Keim has 6 dingers to her name, and Watkins only 2. Keim has transitioned from a leadoff "get on base" hitter into the team's notable slugger.

Keim's new cleanup role has given her confidence, which the coaching staff said is key to the co-captain's recent success.

"She has always had to the tools, but now she has the confidence to use them," hitting coach Stacy May-Johnson said. "That has come from finding some success. Not only is she doing well in the field, she's coming up to bat knowing that she's hit well before — that she's the one they're trying to get out."

The senior started making adjustments in the middle of last season, and nearly a year of diligent work in the batting cages resulted in a power swing. Keim said she didn't enter the season with the goal of hitting more homers — she instead worked to correct her technique. She said she put all her effort into the technical aspect of her swing, and "the home runs have just happened."

Head coach Marla Looper said Keim's success is impressive because she continued focusing on the small, mundane details of her at-bats even after the initial learning process of fixing her swing was over.

"It's hard to maintain all those changes and keep tweaking it here and there," Looper said. "It takes a lot of diligence to constantly work on those details during hitting practice. She works off a front toss, or live pitching, or a machine, or a tee. All those little ways — those make the difference."

Keim had to make significant mental adjustments during the conversion from a leadoff to a cleanup hitter. Instead of focusing on getting on base any way possible — walk, bunt, hit-by-pitch, infield single, — Keim's job is now to make solid contact, especially if there are runners on base. Her job used to be to set the table. Now, it's her job to clear it.

May-Johnson said that suits Keim well.

Keim excelled in the leadoff spot, tackling important jobs such as taking a lot of pitches to give her teammates a look at the pitcher, but May-Johnson said it was always obvious she wanted to be able to swing freely.

"There's no question that Katie wants to go up there and swing the bat," the assistant coach said. "[Last season] Katie was just trying to figure out what it looks like for her to be successful in the Big Ten, in Division-I softball. This year she has done just that."

The senior's batting average has improved from .270 last year to .330 in 2012, and her slugging percentage has jumped from .379 to .583. Even her on-base percentage has improved, despite taking fewer walks.

Looper said Keim's offensive versatility, and recent improvements, make her "a coach's dream." Keim said she's proud of that and happy because the confidence and pressure it gives her has helped her hit the homers this season.

"I'm so glad Coach has the confidence in me that she can put me anywhere," she said. "I like the challenge of this new spot because it's really driven me to do my best."

Follow DI softball reporter Molly Irene Olmstead on Twitter.

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