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BLOOMINGTON — Undoubtedly, Hayley Earl and Colleen Palczynski stepped into a favorable situation as freshmen on the Illinois Wesleyan softball team.

Yet Earl and Palczynski also stepped waist deep into some seriously lofty expectations.

“It was kind of weird coming in like ‘Here I am,’ ” Earl said. “All these people who got second in nationals last year, I have to step up with them and be able to play just as well as they do.”

Earl and Palczynski have more than delivered as freshman starters on a Wesleyan team that finds itself right back in NCAA Division III Regional play Thursday at IWU.

Earl has stepped in as the Titans’ catcher and batted .276, while Palczynski is among the team leaders with a .345 average as IWU’s first baseman.

“We knew through the recruiting process they would have an opportunity to play, and they took advantage of it,” said Wesleyan coach Tiffany Prager. “From the second they stepped on campus, they have been leaders. They really have had a huge impact on the team.”

Ranked sixth nationally, the Titans carry a 33-7 record and the regional’s top seed into Thursday’s 2:30 p.m. game against No. 4 seed Otterbein (24-15). No. 2 Calvin (29-8) and No. 3 Milwaukee School of Engineering (33-10) square off at noon in the double-elimination event.

“It was crazy. All of us (incoming) freshmen watched the games last year,” Palczynski said of a postseason run that ended in a 3-1 loss to Virginia Wesleyan in the national championship game. “We came in realizing we have an expectation we’re coming into. It’s been amazing being able to be part of the team this year.”

A Prospect High School graduate, Palczynski bats fourth in the IWU lineup and leads the team with 24 RBIs while blasting five home runs.

“Every day I come in with the mindset I’m still competing for this spot,” she said. “I still want to feel like nothing is guaranteed by any means. I’m not going to take it for granted.”

Earl attended Central Illinois softball power Washington.

“Hayley is just a student of the game,” said Prager. “She did a great job of learning our process and building a relationship with each pitcher on our staff.”

Earl’s roommate is Madie Monk, IWU’s No. 3 pitcher. But she also has become comfortable with proven veterans Ally Wiegand (19-2 record, 0.39 ERA) and Brea Walker (13-4, 1.60).

“We all clicked pretty fast,” Earl said. “I have a different connection with all three, but it’s still a very strong connection.”

Earl started her college career at .421 through six games. Then came a 3-for-31 (0.96) stretch over the next 11 games before she was able to send her average upward again.

“Really it was just about confidence. I started getting into my head a little bit,” said Earl. “With coaching and all the support from my teammates, it helped me get out of that slump.”

The Titans are making their eighth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

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Contact Randy Reinhardt at (309) 820-3403. Follow him on Twitter: @Pg_Reinhardt

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