It’s a quiet day at Kennedy High School, with no softball games or practice scheduled in part because of a half-day school session. A stiff breeze ruffles vegetation and the pounding footsteps of students getting to or exiting from class provide an aural backdrop around the campus. Otherwise, quiet.
Jackie Olvera and twin sister Jessica are enjoying the quiet at Kennedy, and not just on this day at school. Things have gotten peaceful again around the Golden Cougars team after an unexpected coaching change last year that, despite a 23-7 record, threw the 2014 season into chaos and concluded with an ugly first round playoff loss to Granada Hills. The twins didn’t want that again for their senior year.
But, for now, it’s quiet again at Kennedy. The Cougars are winning again and winning can create sense of serenity even if there are still things bubbling under the surface.
It’s too early to say everything is genial. But for Jackie and Jessica, both 17, there is reason to believe the Cougars can do better than just the first round of the playoffs.
“I think the team is progressing,” Jackie said. “It’s just that some days we’re ‘off’ and other days we’re ‘on’; we’re not quite ‘there’ yet. But we will be. I’m feeling better about it now.”
Jessica nods her head in agreement. “We had a very slow start. I had big hopes of going to (City championship game) — I still do. But it’s going to take longer.”
Kennedy has found the Los Angeles City Section girls’ softball Division I Championship an elusive butterfly since last capturing it in 2010 with a 1-0 victory against Chatsworth.
One of the reasons is the rise of Carson High. The Colts have won the last two championships and beat the Cougars for the title in 2013. But the more pressing situation was the sudden dismissal of Craig Becker who coached the team for 10 years, and led Kennedy to that 2010 championship and three finals appearances over a seven-year span.
Becker was fired in the middle of the 2014 season by then principal Suzanne Blake. His firing reportedly happened because a letter he wrote to City Section marketing director Hugo Ramirez criticizing Time Warner Cable’s failure to televise the sectional finals last season.
(At the end of the 2013-14 school year Blake was promoted to another LAUSD position as Lead Operations Coordinator at district’s Educational Service Center-North. According to published reports, Blake “chose” to leave Kennedy after being there three years. There were more than 1,000 signatures demanding her removal on the website thepetitionsite.com.)
The job was handed to Carmen Gurrola, a 2009 Kennedy graduate who played softball there and also in college at St. Francis (Pa.) University, and Maryland Eastern Shore University, where she graduated in 2013. She was an assistant at Alemany High when the offer came.
A walk-on, Gurrola — whose fresh-scrubbed appearance could still pass for a high school student — brought limited experience to the position. Not “X’s” and “O’s” knowledge, but in getting your message across in a palatable manner. Gurrola had both the eagerness and the impatience of youth, and had a rocky start with her players at the end of 2014, and the beginning of 2015.
“I didn’t think I had to make an adjustment since I had just finished playing,” Gurrola said. “I had been around a lot of personalities and girls. But overall, the biggest adjustment was for (the players). I know Coach Becker’s coaching methods, his style, his philosophy, and now they had to adopt to mine. That has the hardest challenge for them and the frustration of me not having them make the adjustment as quickly as I was hoping for.
“But not only did they have to adapt to me, I had to adapt to them. I had to understand they’re not college girls. I had to change my ways, to see what they responded to,” she said.
Jackie said there was a meeting last month between the coach and the players to clear any lingering air of distrust and suspicion. Jackie added that the team also had a players-only meeting to have “an understanding of what we wanted to do, of blending the personalities.”
Becker, currently a volunteer assistant for the Birmingham High softball team, coached Gurrola at Kennedy and described her as talented. He said he hoped Kennedy players and parents would give her the chance to evolve as a coach.
“As a player she had blossomed as a third baseman and pitcher as a senior,” Becker said. “But she also got some bad advice from a travel ball coach who convinced her to quit our team and it devastated us. I thought we could have won it all that year, but we lost to El Camino Real in the semifinals.
“She wants to coach and she’ll be good. I think she can do well at Kennedy. But it’s hard to be thrown into that situation with a high-profile team.”
Gurrola is definite about certain things for the Cougars, especially conditioning. But, Jackie noted, “she’s calmed down.”
Jackie must also occasionally rein in her sister. Jessica, who said she loves the pressure and responsibility of being the team’s top pitcher, describes herself as “too competitive for my own good,” and admits she can be difficult on the days she’s pitching.
“I can be a perfectionist,” Jessica said. “If I’m doing my job, I’m helping [her teammates]. It’s great because I look back, and if I’m hearing them say ‘good stuff’ and encouraging me, I try to encourage them as much as I can because I know I can be hard to play with.”
When she’s throwing to her sister Jessica said, “we have, like, one mind. She knows if I’m having an off-day and she knows how to calm me down. I’ll go back to the mound and she gives me a dirty look because I walked someone. But she calms me down, tells me what to do. It’s fun.”
A 12-2 victory against Reseda on Monday, March 23, improved the Cougars’ record to 7-3 overall, and 4-0 in the Mission Valley League. They have won six of their last seven games The Cougars are now on an extended break until April 8, when they resume league play against Panorama High. Kennedy has to guard against getting rusty. But the sisters admit Gurrola’s conditioning demands — including “a lot of running” — has the team more fit. And with the team focused solely on getting back to the playoffs and winning a City championship, Gurrola doesn’t expect to see a lax, disinterested band of Cougars when the season resumes.
“It’s still just March. But I see the potential,” the coach said. “It’s just who shows up at the beginning of the game. You don’t always know who you get. The consistency…yeah. I can say the only thing we’ve struggled in are in slow starts. But we are finding our rhythm. Hopefully by playoffs we’ll be a powerhouse as well. I think they just need to find their rhythm and get going.”