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Cougars Are Young But Dangerous PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mike Terry, Contributing Writer   
Thursday, 29 March 2012 02:18

A Bunch Of Underclassmen, Led By Mariah Ellis And Melinda Alcantar, Have Kennedy's Softball Team Tearing Up The Valley Mission League


A Pair Of Sluggers - Melinda Alcantar (left), a sophomore, and Mariah Ellis, a freshman, are two of the young but talented players driving the Kennedy High softball team to the top of the Valley Mission League.

It wasn't that long ago that Kennedy High won the City Section softball championship – 2010 to be exact – but judging the current roster, there are probably not many beyond Coach Craig Becker who remember it.

There are three seniors on the 2012 squad. Only one, second baseman Rebecca Flury, is a starter. Meaning Becker is throwing out a lot of youth on the field wearing Kennedy jerseys.

That has not kept these Cougars from displaying some early prowess.

Kennedy sports a flashy 9-2, 4-0 record (going into the March 28 game against Sylmar), and they are mauling opponents with their bats. The Cougars are hitting .442 as a team and averaging 11.2 runs a game. They had scored in double figures in six of their games, including a 23-0 dismantling of Panorama on Monday, March 26.

Leading the way for this potential powerhouse is a couple of unlikely hitting machines.

Freshman left fielder Mariah Ellis may look demure with long, curly hair framing her face and a wiry frame. But she's batting .583, is tied for second on the team in hits with 21, has scored 12 runs, driven in 14, and is tied for the team lead in home runs with three.

Ask her the reason for her success and Ellis doesn't overanalyze.

"I try to get contact to get on base," she said. "Then I try to use my speed to get everywhere else."

Ellis is doing more than just making "contact." She has sneaky strong hands and wrists that provide tremendous torque for her swing and bat speed. More than one opponent has been surprised by how quickly the ball flies off her bat.

"We knew she would be good, didn't know how good," Becker said. "And she hits a heavy ball. I haven't seen that since Crystl Bustos," a twotime Olympic gold medalist with the USA softball team who grew up in nearby Canyon Country.

"Her defensive skills are not as good yet as her offensive skills, but if Mariah gets a glove on it, she will catch it. What impresses is she plays 100 percent all the time. She'll go after a foul ball in practice just as hard as if it was in a game. She's a coach's dream."

Playing with the traveling So Cal Sliderz 18 Gold softball team has certainly aided Ellis' development. One of its coaches, Eric Hovart, also marveled at her softball gifts.

"She's got power to all fields," Hovart said. "It's her wrists and bat speed that drives the ball far. She is soft with her feet but she can whip a bat around.

And every time she hits ball she is running hard – every time. She will turn normal singles into doubles and groundouts into hits. And she can execute bunts if needed."

Alcantar, a sophomore, also 15, was a more known quantity to Becker because she played at Kennedy last year. Still, you normally don't expect catchers to be your leading hitters. Yet Alcantar – who bats left-handed – has the team's highest average at .605, and has the most hits with 23.

Alcantar has hit safely in all 11 games she's played in despite a left ankle injury from running the bases. The injury caused some unintended alterations in her swing.

"I had gotten into a couple of bad (hitting) habits," said Alcantar, who's driven in 16 runs and scored seven. "My dad and I went back to basics on my swing. I had to fix a couple of things mechanically." Since March 9, Alcantar had 17 hits in her last 25 at-bats.

"She has gotten out of her early slump," Becker said. "Her work ethic is like Mariah, very dedicated. Defensively as catcher, her arm is kind of slow. In fact, we're having her throw from her knees right now to quicken her arm. She is still learning about calling pitches. She just needs to play the position. But the bat is pretty good."

Alcantar's love for the game is a family affair. Her older brother Danny, who graduated from Kennedy last year, played on the varsity baseball team.

"I watched my brother Daniel play [baseball] and I saw him travel to different places. I wanted that, too," Alcantar said.

"My brother started out catching, and I wanted to follow him. And I just loved it after that."

Ellis said she started out playing T-ball and baseball, but switched to softball in the second grade. "It's really my passion," she said.

No one knows yet how good these Cougars are. The two losses came relatively early – Ojai Nordhoff beat them 6-2 on March 3, and Chatsworth beat them 8-3 on March 7. That evened their record at 2-2. Since then Kennedy had seven straight, and was the only undefeated team in the Valley Mission League going into the Sylmar game.

Becker said the Las Vegas Spring Jamboree tournament the team will pay in during the spring break could give him a better idea. He worries about the pitching; so far, Becker said, he lacks that one dominant arm that can carry a team.

"We will use three pitchers every game because we're not overpowering and (the pitched) ball doesn't move as much as I'd like it to," Becker said. "If we can get away with them going one time through lineup, fine; more than that, and the better hitters will hit them."

Ellis and Alcantar are a bit more optimistic.

"When I first saw our team play I thought we could win it all," Alcantar said. "I feel we work good together, and have fun playing the game. I think this team is better than last year's."

"I think we have a shot at winning City. I have faith," added Ellis. "Whatever we're doing now is fine. We are kind of like a family…we have bonded. As long as we stay close together, we should be fine. The games we lost, we weren't talking enough. But we have communicated better since then."