Beecher’s Kayla Hon was’t always the best, but she was always determined to be the best. In junior high, she didn’t get much playing time, and when she did, she was stuck in the outfield, where she remembers attempting to catch a fly ball and instead dropped her entire glove.
Those middle school years are nothing but distant, laughable memories now. As a high schooler, Hon developed into the ace of all aces, compiling 70 career wins, 26 of those this season, and a pair of state championship victories, one as a sophomore and one this year as a senior.
After being named to the Illinois Coaches Association Class 2A All-State first team and the River Valley All-Conference team, Hon now has added a new award to her resume — the 2019 Daily Journal Co-Player of the Year.
“You were just hoping she didn’t get hit in the head with a ball, almost having to put a batting helmet on her,” Beecher coach Kevin Hayhurst, who also coaches the middle school program, said. “She was far away ... but she had a tremendous work ethic and did a lot of things that nobody understands or sees.
“She just blossomed into what she’s become today.”
What Hon has become today is one of the most dominant student-athletes on one of the most dominant programs in area history. Her area-high 26 wins this season came on area-bests in strikeouts (263) and earned run average (1.27).
When Hon hit eighth grade, she began transitioning from the outfield — where she said she, “dropped every ball,” to the pitcher’s circle, where she began learning the art of pitching under the tutelage of Hayhurst.
Hon slowly learned how to pitch and began to figure out what became her riseball. She said by her sophomore year, she had a good feel of her riseball, and in turn, her talents as a pitcher.
“The very beginning of my sophomore year, I started getting it,” Hon said. “That’s coach Hayhurst’s pitch — every kid in Beecher learns a riseball.
“I was determined to make that my pitch because I knew if it was important to him, it must be a good pitch to throw.”
Hayhurst said Hon developed a quiet confidence about her, which was equally as important as her mastering of that riseball.
“She got an opportunities and made the most of them,” Hayhurst said. “She took the ball and said, ‘Nobody else is gonna take it from me.’”
By the time the postseason of that sophomore year — the 2017 season — came around, Hon was a full-fledged star. Over the course of the last three postseasons, she threw every pitch of every game, save for two first-round regional games the Bobcats won in four-inning routs.
Those games included three IHSA Class 2A State Championship games. Hon and the Bobcats defeated St. Joseph-Ogden in 2017, lost to Rockridge in 2018 and defeated Pinckneyville this season.
Hon said that she developed the confidence Hayhurst spoke of when her ran began, confidence that was increased tenfold by her catcher that year, current Wisconsin Badger Taylor Johnson.
“Taylor has been my biggest role model in softball and having her as my catcher as a sophomore inspired me to become a better pitcher,” Hon said. “I knew she wouldn’t be there my entire time and I would have to step up.
“(Current catcher A.J. Picicco) is a great catcher too, but I needed to have that mindset on my own.”
Hon and Picicco, as well as third baseman and fellow senior Ellie Lee, grew up on the same street in Beecher, close friends since their elementary school days. Hon said that relationship with Picicco continued to blossom as the two became battery mates the past two seasons.
“She wasn’t always my catcher, but we were always pretty good friends,” Hon said. “When she became my catcher, our relationship grew even more because we had that pitcher-catcher connection.”
The Bobcats rode that battery, paired with a lineup that would make the 1927 Yankees envious, to their third-straight state appearance in East Peoria. But before they played in a third-straight title game, the Bobcats had to get past the same Rockridge team that defeated them in the 2018 title game in the state semis.
“We remembered what happened last year … even though we didn’t win when I was a junior, we knew that we could,” Hon said. “(This year), we went out there and attacked every pitch that came to us to try and get ahead.”
The Bobcats avenged their 2018 loss with a 5-4 victory over the Rockets and followed it up in typical Beecher fashion. Hon threw a two-hitter, while the Bobcats’ offense compiled a dozen hits on their way to an 8-0 victory.
“I told (the team) that they were the best team in the state, there would be a lot of expectations on them and everyone would bring their best game against us,” Hayhurst said. “We got through it all and it was a great feeling for them.”
Now a two-time state champ, Hon and her lifelong friends will go their own ways for college — Hon to pitch at Olivet Nazarene University, Lee to play softball at Roosevelt University and Picicco to Valparaiso — all three less than an hour away from each other if they ever need anything.
Hon leaves behind at Beecher a legacy that only Johnson can truly match. After finding a role model in Johnson and working hard to become a talent on the same tier as her icon, Hon knows that she now will provide as motivation for the next crop of young softball players in Beecher.
“When I was a kid, I would have never thought I got to where I am now and gone to state three years in a row,” Hon said. “Younger girls can look and see that I wasn’t the best when I was younger, and know that if they keep working hard, it’s not too late.”