Kennedy softball team scores redemption in second title run
The Kennedy softball team put the finishing touches on arguable the best season in program history, downing the Union Bobcats and Grant Union Prospectors in consecutive games in the 2021 2A softball championship showcase on May 22.
The back-to-back victories in the semifinals and finals, respectively, concluded the first undefeated season in program history for the Trojans, who went largely unchallenged in 16 games over the course of six weeks.
And it almost didn't happen — not because of the looming threat of COVID shutdowns, but simply due to fielding a full team.
"Well, it kind of started out a little precarious," head coach Walt Simmons said. "We only had eight players that really wanted to play, so getting kids to come out and be part of softball was a challenge."
Kennedy ultimately was able to coax two more student-athletes to come out for the team, paving the way for an unforgettable season and redemption for a senior class that was eager to make up for last year's cancelled schedule.
The group of Kelsey Kleinschmit, Ellie Cantu, Elise Suing, Hailey Arritola and Riley Newton joined the team as freshman in 2018, watching from the bench as the Trojans ripped through the state playoffs en route to the program's first state championship in school history.
Kennedy returned to the finals the following year, this time with the sophomore quintent playing a significant role in the title defense, only to fall to North Douglas in the state championship.
Undeterred, the group returned for their junior season, claiming state title trophies in volleyball and basketball before setting their sites on redemption in the 2020 softball season — only for everything to come crashing down a week before the start of the season.
"It was a big deal, because we knew we had a possibility in 2020 to make school history having championships in all three – volleyball, basketball and softball – not that it was guaranteed, but the opportunity," Simmons said.
The Trojans ultimately did not get that opportunity, fueling the fire for their return to the softball diamond in 2021.
"Coming out this year, those seniors were very focused on softball, that it would be something they could do," Simmons said.
Only this time, Kennedy had a secret weapon of sorts. With the cancelled season, the Trojans had lost all-state pitcher Grace Schaecher to graduation. They needed a replacement and found it in sophomore Jenna Hopkins.
"She came out and I had never seen her really pitch in a game, and she just picked up the ball and went," Simmons said. "Once the other players saw she had something – then they said we can back you up."
Between Hopkins and the Trojan defense, Kennedy proved to be nearly untouchable. The softball team shut out their first five opponents, outscoring them 82-0 before surrenduring their first run in a 15-4 win over Toledo.
That game ultimately accounted for half the runs given up all season by the Trojans, who put up 13 goose eggs and saw only eight runs scored against them — only one of which came in the team's four playoff games.
"(Hopkins) was on and she was focused, and they rallied behind her and understood after a few games – we have a really good pitcher, let's take care of business."
Kennedy rolled into the post season on May 18, claiming an 11-0 win over Monroe before taking down Toledo 2-0 in a May 20 rematch from a month earlier.
"We knew that was going to be a tough team," Simmons said. "Their pitcher is a great pitcher, they had good fielding, they could hit the ball – I guess we went thorugh it and thought we could do this."
The win vaulted the Trojans into the final four on May 22 in Redmond. Win or lose, Kennedy would face back-to-back opponents, beginning with Union. The Bobcats ended up being just the fourth team to go all seven innings against the Trojans, who came out with an 8-1 win to advance to the tournament final against Grant Union.
"I think Union – they're a very good team, to be able to allow only one run to them was a shot in the arm," Simmons said. "(Hopkins) felt confident going into this double header knowing she could do the first game and the second game."
The championship game largely mirrored Kennedy's first title run in 2018 — a 10-0 win over Pilot Rock in five innings. Only this time around it was a 16-0 romp, putting a fitting bookend on senior class that went 62-9 in three seasons and can graduate as the program's only two-time champions.
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