Kennedy High, for all intents and purposes, wrapped up the Valley Mission League softball championship on Monday, April 25, by beating San Fernando High for the second time this year.
The Golden Cougars (16-5, 9-0) still have three Valley Mission games remaining against Sylmar (Wednesday’s results were unavailable at press time), Van Nuys and Canoga Park. But it would take a spectacular collapse to lose the grip Kennedy has had on the rest of the league, as their 145-3 run differential would suggest.
But there is more to the story. And still more to accomplish, with the City Section playoffs coming in May.
For most of the 2022 season, the Cougars have been doing it the hard way, in that they don’t have their own field because the Kennedy campus — like many other LAUSD schools — is undergoing renovation and modernization. Add that on top of the other obstacles that include COVID disruptions and a section of the 15-player roster navigating through its first full season of high school softball, and it had the makings of being a pockmarked season that would have been easy to let fade into oblivion.
But instead of bemoaning their fate and listlessly going through the motions on the field, the Cougars — who have played their home games at the nearby Granada Hills Recreation Center, also known as Petit Park — have molded themselves into being a playoff contender.
“It was rough in the beginning because when you’re at school and everybody’s invited to come watch you, you get that sense of pressure that you want,” said shortstop Jennifer Rodriguez, 16, a junior. “But here at Petit Park, when you don’t feel that kind of pressure, it feels like you’re playing below your actual level.
“We didn’t feel it at first. But once we practiced here, and we had a few games, it felt like the [good] pressure was back on once again.”
Catcher Trinity Jones, 18, a senior, feels the season has been a success in overcoming their challenges. “It definitely feels like that especially because of the bond we’ve created this year,” Jones said. “And it was kind of hard because of the COVID the year before. So it really does feel like a success already.”
That bond has gelled the team into a combination of moxie and determination that defines their game. After losing three of their first four games to open the year, the Cougars went on a ferocious tear, winning 10 of the next 11 to establish themselves. They should wind up in either the Open Division or Division I playoff bracket after the regular season concludes on May 4. And they don’t expect to be an easy “out” no matter who they face.
“They’re very resilient,” noted Coach Christian Carbajal. “They have been facing adversity since Day One — not having a full team to practice in fall because of COVID, not having a home field. But I think wherever [playoff division they’re in], they want to be that last team standing.”
That’s a feeling Carbajal knows very well. As a senior, she was the winning pitcher in Kennedy’s 2010 Division I championship victory over Chatsworth. (The team’s other title was the 2004 Invitational Championship.)
And Carbajal understands adversity. She was partially blinded in middle school after being struck by a soccer ball that crushed the retina in her left eye. But she didn’t let that stop her from wanting to play softball, and — despite her parents’ concerns — she pitched without wearing a protective face mask.
“They wanted me to play, but maybe pitching was out of the question because it’s so close to [the hitters],” Carbajal said. “It was just kind of like, ‘Okay, what are you going to do because if you injure your other eye, what are you going to do in life post softball?’ But yeah, I’m happy I didn’t get discouraged and I’m happy that, you know, I had enough passion to push through and even play in college ball (at Long Beach State).”
She has transferred that level of passion and commitment to her team. It was certainly on display in the 6-0 win over the Tigers on Monday. Kennedy broke the game open with five runs in the bottom of the sixth. San Fernando had one last threat, loading the bases with no outs in the top of the seventh. But Cougars pitcher Maya Ramirez extinguished the potential rally with two strikeouts and a popup to complete the shutout.
“As a pitcher, you have to have more mental toughness and not let the crowd noise or like the other opponents or the other fans get to you or get in your head. Because that would get you off your game,” said Ramirez, 16, a junior.
That seventh inning “was a really good example of mental toughness and pushing through it,” Ramirez said.
Kennedy does not plan to use those final games as “tuneups” for the playoffs. They are not going to disrespect the game or their opponents — or what they have accomplished so far this season — by giving anything less than full effort now, and in the postseason.
“The [same] mentality and energy,” Rodriguez said. “Because I feel like the mental awareness that a player has and the energy that she puts in — and not just physical ability — is really like a major part of the sport. So I feel like we have to take that into playoffs.”
Carbajal is proud of their growth as players and people from this season.
“One thing that they’re gonna take into playoffs is their mindset and their competitiveness. I think that’s their strength,” the coach said. “My girls are very confident. They know what they bring to the table; I always tell them, ‘You need to know what you have and what you bring, and don’t sell yourself short.’ And that goes towards like how they present themselves on the field.”