The shelf where Kennedy High puts all its softball championship hardware has gathered a little dust.
At least as far as where those trophies and plaques representative of winning the City Section Division I championship go.
The last such title won by the Golden Cougars came in 2010. They came close again in 2012 by reaching the final — their third championship game appearance in seven years — but lost to Carson. Otherwise they haven’t gotten within a paw’s length of another banner.
The last two seasons in the playoffs have been particularly frustrating for Kennedy, which suffered quarterfinals losses to Chatsworth in 2015 and El Camino Real in 2016. The fact that Chatsworth and ECR were the eventual City champions those years didn’t lessen the sting of those playoff defeats.
The situation wasn’t helped when Craig Becker was curiously removed as head coach by then principal Suzanne Blake in 2014. (Blake is now listed as a lead coordinator for the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Operations Center-North.) He returned to Kennedy in 2016, and is listed as co-coach with Stacey Horvat.
But Becker said he has plenty to be optimistic about in 2017 even though this is one of his younger teams since it includes three freshmen — Aliyah Rincon, Alyssa Sierra, Natalia Vazquez — in the starting lineup.
“This year we had an influx of great freshmen,” Becker said. “There are three more on the JV who will be on varsity next year.”
The upperclassmen also appreciate the energy and exuberance the newcomers have brought to the team.
“I think we’re better this year [because] the freshmen have really picked the team up,” said pitcher Diana Rodriguez, a senior who transferred to Kennedy from Sylmar in 2015.
Her catcher Ariana Mendoza, a junior agreed. “They have brought us a lot of hustle. And they all want to be here [at Kennedy].”
The blend of youngsters and returning players — some of whom, like Mendoza and Rodriguez also play on the Valley-based travel softball team Insanity — have given Becker an aggregation of Cougars that, in his words, are “crushing” the softball.
“Everybody’s hitting,” the coach said. “In our lineup, 1-9, we feel there is no weak spot. Anyone in our lineup can be a tough out. They are go-getters. And that doesn’t include the kids on the bench.”
Meaning that Kennedy is, once again, terrorizing the Valley Mission League.
The Cougars, 12-4 overall, have won or shared nine of the last 10 league titles, dating back to 2007. And they are undefeated so far in league this season (5-0) after overwhelming Canoga Park, 28-1, on Monday, March 27.
In one respect, however, there’s no other team besides San Fernando and Sylmar that can push Kennedy in the Valley Mission. Those three have all been in the mix for the league championship; in fact San Fernando (in 2011) is the only team to win an outright league title besides Kennedy since 2007.
This season the Tigers have come the closest to beating Kennedy in league play, dropping a 9-6 decision back on March 16. But subtract that score, and the Cougars have outscored their opponents in their other four league games by a cumulative total of 91-2.
Yet when it comes to the seedings for the playoffs, Becker said, the Cougars pay a price for such dominance in a not very strong league.
“In the playoffs [their seeding goes down] because our strength of schedule when we play in league goes down,” Becker said. “And I don’t think it’s fair that we are penalized for playing the teams we have to play.”
It’s one reason Becker does his best to schedule the toughest teams he can for Kennedy (as in Southern Section) in nonleague play. Two of their four losses have been to Alemany; the other defeats are to Simi Valley and Buena of Ventura. But the Cougars have beaten Nordhoff of Ojai, and West Ranch of Valencia.
“In my opinion we play the toughest non-league schedule in the City,” he said. “I’m not sure about Carson or Banning, but in our non-league games…we’re playing top-ranked Southern Section teams.”
The Cougars have one remaining tough hurdle in their schedule: five games in the Las Vegas Spring Jamboree tournament, beginning April 13. “We’ll see some top teams there,” Mendoza said.
Those games could identify any remaining flaws that can be addressed by the Cougars before their regular season ends with final league games against Sylmar and San Fernando on April 18 and 20.
“We’re still very young defensively,” Becker said. “Defense is always a key. We have to get better defensively. That will be crucial.”
But so has putting together a group of players that like being around each other and competing together.
“It’s what makes Kennedy good — the coaching and the people here,” Rodriguez said.
And, she emphasized, “we all want to be here.”