Prep Softball

Coming up at state softball: Cedar Rapids Kennedy's best chance at something big

Cougars are talented, experienced and hungry for redemption

Cedar Rapids Kennedy's Abby Spore (21) cheers in Mya Dodge (11) after she hits a home run against Iowa City High on Jne
Cedar Rapids Kennedy’s Abby Spore (21) cheers in Mya Dodge (11) after she hits a home run against Iowa City High on Jne 24. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — “That wasn’t us.”

That is Abby Spore’s takeaway from her team’s performance at last year’s state softball tournament.

“One little error, and we froze,” said Spore, a senior catcher for Cedar Rapids Kennedy. “We tensed up. It got in our heads a little bit.”

Full of talent, experience and hunger, the second-ranked Cougars (23-1) return to the Rogers Sports Complex in Fort Dodge for a Monday encounter with No. 9 Pleasant Valley (17-6) in a Class 5A first-rounder. First pitch is 12:30 p.m.

A current cliche is the “window of opportunity,” and Kennedy’s window has been open for a few years, since this current class of seniors arrived.

This isn’t necessarily the Cougars’ last chance. But without a doubt, it’s their best chance.

“We all have a mission, and we all know our role,” pitcher Kaylin Kinney said. “We are stacked in so many aspects.”

The Cougars have it all. They hit for average (eight starters hit .350 or better) and for power (a state-leading 75 doubles, plus 35 home runs, led by Kinney’s nine).

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Their pitching duo of Kinney (9-0, 0.00 ERA) and Jayme Scheck (8-0, 0.55) is as stingy as any in the state.

Led by smooth shortstop Alyssa Martin, the team has committed just 14 errors and owns a .977 fielding percentage. That leads the state, too.

It’s a group that LeClere calls “happy-go-lucky.” But there’s an edge there, too.

Kennedy entered last year’s state tournament with high hopes, but was drummed in the first round by Iowa City High, 10-2. An 8-0 consolation loss to Fort Dodge followed.

“I’m trying to forget last year,” LeClere said, then added:

“Every now and then, getting your butt kicked is OK. It teaches you humility. It set a precedent; we don’t want to feel that way again.”

Martin suffered a knee injury in last year’s regional final, forcing LeClere to shuffle players defensively.

“It was really hard to watch,” Martin said. “Nothing was clicking at the right time, and all I could do was talk and not perform.”

And now, the Cougars are back, a year older, a year more mature. Six key members are seniors.

Leadership comes in a varsity of ways. LeClere talked first about the left side of the infield.

“(Third baseman) Reegan (Deputy) never stops talking,” LeClere said. “That helps assure the other girls, ‘Hey, we’ve got this.’

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“(Martin) is funny. But when she’s serious and has something to say, people will listen.”

The Cougars have received some good fortune along the way. Scheck healed from hip surgery faster than expected. Mya Dodge moved in from Cedar Rapids Prairie and anchored the outfield. Mary Krystofiak blossomed.

“When Kaylin was gone (for an ASA tournament with her club team), we saw a side of Mary that we hadn’t seen before,” LeClere said. “She came in and competed.”

And in hindsight, the shorter season may have been a blessing.

“There has been less time for drama things to move forward and heat up,” Spore said. “I think we’re still fresh.”

Heading into the postseason, the Cougars had won 14 straight games. Lest the team was getting too sassy, the staff worked them through the mill.

“We added consequences to their mental lapses. We tried to make it hard,” LeClere said. “We were going through a 21-outs drill and the girls were rolling through it, feeling pretty good.

“Then we made it a little tougher. The first error, we had them drop their gloves and run a lap around the field. Their eyes got pretty huge. Second error, same thing. They fell apart there for a little while.”

They responded by beating Dubuque Senior 7-0 in a regional semifinal, then outlasted Iowa City Liberty 1-0 in an 11-inning battle to return to state.

It was a game that the Cougars might not have won as recently as last year.

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“Every inning, we were still upbeat,” Kinney said. “It was like the first inning all over again. We were still ready to go. And finally, we broke through.”

So now it’s back to Fort Dodge. Twenty-two years have passed since a Metro team last won a state championship; Jefferson went back-to-back in 1997 and 1998.

Kennedy’s window of opportunity is wide open.

“We know we have something special,” Kinney said. “We’re not going to let anything get in our way of what we want to achieve.”

Comments: (319) 368-8857; jeff.linder@thegazette.com

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