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Jeff Kolpack, Published May 20 2010

Two of a kind: Like-minded teammates Pipkin, Rivera have sparked NDSU's run to tournament

They think alike. Their personalities are similar. Both shortstop Nicole Rivera and second baseman Laurel Pipkin play similar positions on the North Dakota State softball team.

They’re both from California and both are fast – with Rivera the fastest player head coach Darren Mueller has ever had at NDSU.

About the only difference between the two – and it’s a big one in the sport of softball – is Rivera taught herself to be a left-handed slap hitter when she arrived in Fargo in 2007.

“It was difficult at first,” she said. “I couldn’t hit it off the tee if my life depended on it.”

That’s far from the truth these days. Rivera is second on the team in hitting with a .378 average and has been a major reason NDSU reached the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. The Bison play host Washington in the Seattle Regional on Friday night.

There were two reasons for Rivera’s switch to the left side. A wrist injury her senior year in high school in Lakeside, Calif., made it difficult to hit right handed and her speed made it natural to be a slapper from the left side, which is about two steps closer to first base by the time the bat hits the ball.

“And she bought into it,” Mueller said. “This year, she has really believed in herself. And she also has power to swing away if she has to.”

It’s called a triple threat in softball language. Rivera can hit for power, slap or bunt.

Pipkin is hitting .341, including the game-winning hit in the Summit League championship game against Western Illinois. In the field, both have fielding percentages of over 91 percent, playing defensive positions that are crucial for a successful team.

“Ever since she came here, we’ve really connected,” Pipkin said. “We’ve done plays that you think would never happen, like diving for a ball and flipping it up to the other. We work off of each other.”

Rivera, a junior, has started every game in college, a streak currently at 156 games. Pipkin, a senior, is working on a rarity: starting every game of her college career and the streak is at 225.

No. 226 promises to be tough with the defending champion Huskies, who feature perhaps the best pitcher in the country in Danielle Lawrie. She’s 35-2 with 20 shutouts and 407 strikeouts

“You definitely have to look past the name on the jersey,” Pipkin said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack at (701) 241-5546