On the surface it was business as usual for the Kennedy High Cougars softball team: playing a couple of winnable weekend tournament games against good-but-not-better teams on April 6 as a way to further sharpen and build on a 2019 season that has the potential to turn into something special in May.
Kennedy handled its business, sweeping Poly and Chavez by a combined score of 23-0 to stretch its overall record to 16-3 entering this week. The Cougars are also riding a seven-game winning streak. (The result of the league game against Panorama on Wednesday, April 10, was not available at press time.)
So do the Cougs, indeed, have “That Look,” that feel of a championship squad?
“Not yet,” Coach Craig Becker said.
Becker does know something about “The Look.” Since coming to Kennedy from Granada Hills High in 2005 — and returning here to coach with Stacey Horvat in 2015 — Becker has won more than 280 games at Kennedy, and guided the team to the 2010 City championship. The 2019 squad is definitely talented, and expects to challenge other considered contenders like Chatsworth High, San Fernando High, San Pedro High and Carson High for the Open Division championship. But it’s too early to crown anybody, including Kennedy, the coach said.
“They have the talent, but [at times] they’re still unsure of themselves,” Becker said of the Cougars. “I wish I could figure it out; we’d be a better team.
“[In the Valley Mission League loss to San Fernando] we made five errors — that’s a lack of confidence. It was a bad day. But if you’re gonna be a champion…champions find ways of winning on bad days. We gotta be better.”
At the same time, Becker said there is much to admire about the team.
“I like that they listen. They hustle. They practice well. They seem to have each other’s back. They’re a fun group of kids. There’s no internal strife, no bickering like some other teams might have.”
The Cougars do seem content as a group. It could be the fact that 10 of the players on the roster are juniors, along with three seniors and one freshman. Several have also played on the same travel ball teams.
“I think that just because we’re all in the same class, we know we have to stick with each other,” said shortstop Lea Brito, a junior. “We do our best to have a good connection, not only with the whole team but each other.”
Added lead pitcher Aliyah Rincon, a junior, “I feel we have a lot of laughs together. I feel our bond is one of the biggest things we have as a team.”
Yet familiarity does not always breed content. Tiare LaPorte, a senior who is a catcher and infielder, said last year’s team was good but not close — and it might have had something to do with Kennedy’s 2018 first round playoff loss to Poly.
“This year it’s more ‘family-oriented," LaPorte said. "If we have a problem, we work it out better. Last year, it was like, ‘it’s more about me.’
“This year we realize that, as a team we have to decide what, as a team, we’re going to do. Last year we learned our lesson. We can’t just sit back there and wait to see if somebody’s going to be there for us…It’s more than what just happened last year. I felt everyone was on a different page.This team all wants to fight. We have to take it upon ourselves if we want to be better, and be the best in the City.”
The Cougars are certainly one of the best teams when it comes to putting the ball in play. They have six players with 20 or more hits and seven players with 17 or more RBIs, led by Rincon’s total of 28. Rincon also leads the team in home runs with six.
So when a season is going well like this one, the losses can seem magnified. The 2-1 defeat by San Fernando on March 25 continues to leave a sour taste, and not just because it was the last time the Cougars were beaten (through April 9).
It’s also kept Kennedy conscious of possible shortcomings.
“We need to focus on hitting for the team and not for ourselves, like recently,” said centerfielder Alyssa Sierra, a junior. “Some players have been focusing on themselves, although we do build off of everybody’s at-bats. We need to focus on doing small ball — moving runners, scoring runs, situational hitting — and having those timely hits.”
Kennedy doesn’t get a chance to avenge the San Fernando loss until April 26. Besides other league matchups, there is more tournament play — Simi Valley Invitational games against Burroughs High and Agoura High, and the Las Vegas tournament over the upcoming spring break.
“I think we’re just gonna get better from here,” said catcher/infielder Angelina Franco, a junior. “I think we can compete with the top teams that have won in past years. We’re pretty close now to how they were.”
Second baseman Amy Alvarez, a junior, is another player looking forward to the weeklong Las Vegas tournament trip. “I think the Vegas tournament will get us closer to [championship form], and we’ll be able to play better with each other. We always have fun when we play there.”
Meaning Kennedy could get “The Look” of a champion come May.
It bears watching.