With the way the season started for Kankakee Community College's softball program, one might have thought the Cavaliers were in a world of trouble.
The Cavaliers had a new coach in Keith Cooper, started the season with seven straight losses, and were struggling to generate runs.
Fast forward 42 games later, and those same Cavaliers are standing at 27-22 and flying off to Clinton, Mississippi for NCJAA nationals after clinching a regional title in thrilling fashion with a 6-5 victory over Prairie State.
“That was one of the most exciting games I’ve ever been a part of,” Cooper said. “We were down 5-4 in the seventh inning. Megan Lanie got an infield single, stole second and Jenna Arseneau bunted her over. Morgan Charters bunted and Lanie scored to tie the game. Morgan was safe and went to second since no one was covering. Emma Ledbetter came up and ripped a single back up the middle, and Morgan scored to win.”
Just to put extra emphasis on how big that win was, the last time KCC missed the NCJAA national tournament (1998), most of the players on the Cavs' current roster weren’t born yet.
Although the roster and head coach have changed, the standard remains the same, and Cooper had no plans of going against it.
“It was a rough beginning,” Cooper said. “We scheduled some tough teams in the beginning, and at the same point, we’re all trying to figure one another out. We had just split with Rock Valley, and us coaches had a talk and thought, ‘Now, we’ve got something here. This is what we’ve been waiting for.’”
Cooper said previous Cavalier teams have been more known for their power game, but this team has added a new element: learning to execute and play small ball.
It might have taken time to adjust, but everything came full circle during that Prairie State game. The Cavaliers have seven players, who have had at least 100 at-bats this season, who are batting above .300.
“I’ve got a team that is stacked with girls who can hit it out of the park at anytime,” Cooper said. “Other teams know we have that capability, so it’s shocking them when they see us starting to play small ball and lay down bunts. But it’s worked and helped us get here.”
Cooper credits players such as Lanie, Cole, Ledbetter, Arseneau and Charters for continuing the legacy of KCC softball but also said it is a total team effort.
“We’ve preached that it was about the team all along,” Cooper said. “They all deserve credit getting us to this point. They bought into the system, and we haven’t look back from that moment.”
The Cavaliers are now off to Mississippi to compete for the right to call themselves national champions.
While the matchups have yet to be set, Cooper knows one thing: no matter who the opponent is, he wants his players to take in what they have accomplished and enjoy every second they can playing the game they love.
“We’re going to enjoy this experience because we’ve earned it,” Cooper said. “From how the season started to that winning run crossing the plate, it’s been a wild ride. But it’s led us here and while it’ll be even tougher now, we’re still going to have fun.”